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Armenia: Anger at Death in Police Custody

Mysterious death of witness puts spotlight on culture of police violence.
By Gayane Mkrtchian
Haik Melkumian, a 27-year-old barman from Yerevan, came home badly beaten and bruised after a spell in a police cell. He was not a suspect – he just happened to have witnessed a crime.



“They just beat me for 15 or 20 minutes,” said Melkumian, recalling what happened to him when he was held in custody for two days on May 10 and 11. “The blows came continuously, they threw me on the floor and kept kicking me, and I could barely protect my head with my hands. They kept saying, ‘Tell us who shot him’, and went on beating me. They didn’t allow me water or to go to the toilet on the first day.”



The incident Melkumian witnessed took place on May 9 at his workplace, the Pandok restaurant on the outskirts of Yerevan. A fight broke out, and ended in the shooting of a controversial underworld figure named Stepan Vardanian.



A murder enquiry was launched the same day.



Melkumian thought that as a witness, he would answer some questions at the police station and would then be allowed to go home.



“They didn’t give me a chance to say anything, they just beat me and swore at me, trying to get me to testify and give names. It’s true I witnessed the incident, but I didn’t have anything more to tell them. I told them everything I knew a thousand times, and I just wanted them to stop beating me.”



Waitress Marine Grigorian, 35, described what happened when she was called in to the Shengavit district police department for questioning about the shooting.



“When I asked for water, they told me go and drink it from the lavatory bowl. They called me bad names, and said I knew everything and should tell them,” she said. “I asked to go to the toilet and they said roughly, ‘You can just wet yourself’. I covered my ears with my hands so as not to hear them use terrible swear words against me.”



She and Melkumian at least managed to get out of police custody alive. The owner of the restaurant, Levon Gulian, was not so lucky.



On May 12, Gulian, a 31-year-old father of two, died in the Armenian police’s central department for criminal investigations, under unexplained circumstances. He too had been summoned on May 10



According to an official police statement, during the interrogation, Gulian asked a policeman for some water, and while the officer was out of the room, he tried to escape through the window, but slipped and fell from the second floor, and died of his injuries.



A preliminary investigation is being carried out by the Yerevan Public Prosecutor’s office.



Gulian’s relatives claim that on May 12, Hovik Tamamian, first deputy head of Armenia’s Criminal Investigation Department, took Gulian by car from the Shengavit local police station to the national police department.



IWPR was unable to reach Tamamian for a comment, but a statement from the police rejected suggestions that he had anything to do with Gulian’s death.



Police spokesman Sayat Shirinian called on the media “not to inflame passions, to refrain from biased opinions and all kinds of speculation, all the more so because the police are interested in a definitive clarification of the objective circumstances”.



However, despite official denials, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, local human rights organisations and lawyers, as well as Gulian’s relatives and friends, all believe he was beaten and then thrown out of the window.



“Levon went to the police of his own accord, so why should he try to escape?” said his wife, Jemma Gulian. “It’s absolutely clear to us that the police officers are to blame for Levon’s death. He was threatened in the police room, beaten and then killed by being thrown out of the window.”



Human rights ombudsman Armen Harutyunian said, “The initial versions saying that Levon committed suicide by jumping from the second floor are to be condemned. Just imagine what kind of state a person who came to the police voluntarily would have to have been driven to in order that they would forced to jump from the second floor.”



Relatives who saw Gulian after the two days he spent at the Shengavit police station say he told them he had been beaten constantly by police demanding that he name Stepan Vardanian’s killer. Gulian told his interrogators that he saw the murder but did not know the assassin. When he asked for an attorney to be present at the interrogation, police told him they would beat the lawyer as well.



On May 13, the three lawyers dealing with Levon Gulian’s case - Artur Grigorian, Narine and Ruben Rshtuni - all withdrew from the case. Gulian’s relatives believe the lawyers came under pressure.



Levon’s sister Lilit Gulian says Artur Grigorian was present at the autopsy and reported that the dead man’s head was completely crushed, his ribs bore signs of violence, the shoulder was broken, his whole body was mutilated and the soles of his feet were bruised.



This contradicts the findings of the officially-sanctioned forensic medical examination.



The issue of police brutality in Armenia has raised international concern before now. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has said that “torture and ill-treatment by the police remain serious problems”.



Armenia has signed both the United Nations Convention against Torture and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, and monitors have been appointed by the Ministry of Justice to track compliance with these commitments. However, there has not been a single public report on the issue.



The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visits Armenia every year, and its annual reports continue to express about the behaviour of the police.



“They keep demanding that the torturers be punished, but it’s a voice crying in the wilderness,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia.



The police routinely deny that there is a problem. “It’s absolutely out of the question that any acts of violence like this could occur in police stations,” said Armen Malkhasian, lawyer for the Yerevan city police department.



Gulian’s death is only the latest in a series of acts of violence of which the police stand accused.



Opposition activist Grisha Virabian was so badly beaten by police in 2004 that he had to have an operation and have one testicle surgically removed.

“I was immediately attacked in the police station, they started to kick me. I just begged not to hit below the belt, I couldn’t stand that. But they kept beating me, they swore and kicked me in the ribs and testicles,” Virabian told IWPR.



“If someone had been punished in the Virabian case, there would be no more cases like Gulian’s,” said Larisa Alaverdian, a prominent human rights activist and former ombudsman. “Society must finally start practicing the principle of punishing the guilty.”



Ishkhanian thinks there are two reasons for the climate of impunity in the police force.



“”First, the issue has political ramifications,” he said. “Because the Armenian authorities are heavily reliant on the law-enforcement agencies, the police are a major pillar of support for them.



“Another reason is lack of professionalism. In Soviet times, a frank confession was traditionally regarded as the best form of testimony; in other words they go for the easy option instead of searching for other evidence. In the end, there is impunity because the police enjoy political support.”



Gayane Mkrtchian and Arpi Harutyunian are correspondents for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan and members of IWPR’s Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network.

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