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Armenia: Outrage at Student Soldier's Death

The Armenian military faces hard questions over the death of Artyom Sarkisian, who had protested against graduates being conscripted into the army.
By Zhanna Alexanian

The trial of those accused of killing 22-year-old graduate student and unwilling conscript Artyom Sarkisian is throwing a glaring light on violence in the Armenian army and the call-up of graduates.


Sarkisian received his call-up papers to the army in September 2001, even though he was a graduate student in Yerevan's prestigious Agricultural Academy.


The defence ministry argued that only students who received state-sponsored scholarships should be exempt from military service. Sarkisian did not agree - and he led a series of high-profile student protests outside the government headquarters and education ministry in Yerevan. He and ten other students even tried to take the defence ministry to court.


His family later claimed that he was threatened by the deputy education minister, who asked him, "Aren't you afraid of going into the army?"


It would appear that Sarkisian had good reason to be afraid. He was dead within two months of his arrival at his army unit in the northern Armenian town of Vanadzor on February 25 this year.


The official diagnosis of Sarkisian's death was "poisoning". But his family allege that he died as a result of brutal beatings by fellow soldiers, and have accused the military hospital's medical staff of neglect.


Fifteen people are now on trial in Vanadzor in connection with the young man's death. They include the commander of his unit, Andranik Sahakian, several of his fellow soldiers and five medical personnel. Five of the accused, the commander amongst them, are in custody.


The gravest accusations are against the soldier Aghabek Tadevosian, who could face 12 years' imprisonment if convicted of having played a part in Sarkisian's killing. The prosecution alleges that he and a fellow soldier, Varuzhan Khachatrian, were the "authorities" of the unit, and were responsible for the systematic bullying of junior soldiers.


Both men have refused to give testimony, with Khachatrian saying that, "I do not believe in justice in Armenia". However it is the dead man's relatives who have the most complaints against the court.


When Sarkisian's parents and brother first arrived at the courthouse in Vanadzor - their calls for the trial to be held in Yerevan having been rejected - they claim that a large group of uniformed soldiers and policemen blocked their way into the building.


The dead man's father, Rafael Sarkisian, who had put on his lieutenant-colonel's uniform to go to the trial, alleges that he was shoved back onto the street while many others were let through.


The family were only allowed in after the intervention of the well-known human rights activist Mikael Danielian of the Helsinki Association of Armenia.


When the family protested against their apparent rough treatment and questioned the fairness of the trial, saying they could take no further part in it, they claim that Judge Aghasi Mkoyan, a former military investigator, told them, "the trial will carry on without you".


The dead man's mother, Karine Aghbalian, believes that "they are putting psychological pressure on us so that we don't try to complain and we agree to any decision the court takes".


The family believes that their son was the victim of systematic bullying, and then deliberate medical neglect. "The commander of the unit swore to us at home that my son died of poisoning, but the autopsy showed that he lost three and a half litres of blood," Karine claims, adding that her son's kidneys, spleen, lungs and pancreas had apparently stopped working.


"Sarkisian was viciously beaten by three or more people," the doctor who performed the autopsy allegedly told the family, adding that the young man's life could have been saved if he had received treatment in time. He was only sent to hospital 36 hours after he was apparently attacked.


Five doctors from the Vanadzor garrison hospital are accused of complicity in Sarkisian's death. They all maintain that they did not see any signs of heavy beating on the young man.


However, they are contradicted by the military doctor Aghasi Egiazarian, who found Sarkisian after his beating. The doctor concluded he was in a serious condition and immediately sent him to hospital.


Violence and bullying are endemic in the Armenian army. In the mid-Nineties, around 200 young men a year were dying in the peacetime military. The defence ministry vowed to tackle the problem and in January this year, the current minister Serzh Sarkisian said, "If in 1995 324 soldiers died or were killed, then in 2001 the figure was 56."


The year 2002 promises worse figures however. In the first six months of the year, 33 young men were killed, including Sarkisian.


The dead man's father blames Armenia's military culture for his son's death. "I accuse the commander of the unit of killing my son by creating an atmosphere that everything was permitted and giving several of his soldiers privileged treatment," Rafael Sarkisian said. "They did what they wanted."


Human rights activists believe the death was directly linked to Sarkisian's championing of graduates' rights. "I think that the accused commander was also obeying orders," claimed Danielian. "The killing was a lesson for graduates, so that they would not dare complain."


The case continues.


Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter with ArmeniaNow, www.armenianow.com


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