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Armenian Army Brutality

A presidential human rights commission finds that torture and abuse in the army are commonplace.
By Jeanna Alexanian

A group of women gathered outside the offices of the Armenian president last month waiting for the military prosecutor and chief of military police to emerge. When they appeared, the women threw themselves at the two men. A few steps away another woman, clothes soaked with gasoline, set herself alight. The president's bodyguards smothered her and managed to save her life


The dramatic protest illustrates the scale human rights abuses perpetrated against soldiers in Armenia. Indeed, such is the extent of the problem that when the incident was reported, few seemed surprised, feeling that it was a understandable response to such gross violations. Only the week before, the country's own Human Rights Commission lambasted the military over the issue.


Backed by the Armenian president, Robert Kocharian, the commission reported evidence of alleged ill-treatment and torture of troops - accusations which had already been levelled at the military by NGOs.


In November 2000, Amnesty International had urged the Armenian government to implement the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture, including launching independent investigations into army abuses and independent inspections of all places of detention. (See http://www.amnesty.org.uk/cgi-bin/eatsoup.cgi?id=974808911w212o2o8l51) The commission's findings seem to indicate that reforms have so far not been implemented.


One of the human rights commission's main concerns was with the abuse of servicemen in pre-trial detention. "We are talking about inhuman treatment which cannot even be called standard torture," said commission member Gaik Alumian.


According to the findings, defendants as well as witnesses, are regularly beaten and tortured before appearing in court. They are also held, a dozen or more at a time, in bare, windowless cells.


One of the cases brought up by the commission detailed how police used pliers on detainees' fingers. Another described how an officer repeatedly beat one prisoner on an open foot wound. "The aim is to literally beat a confession or testimony out of the soldiers," said Alumian.


The commission stated that such detention centres are illegal, and that military prosecutors had no right to detain suspects, and certainly not witnesses, without a directive from the courts. "Witnesses are kept there until they agree to give testimony favourable for the court," continued Alumian.


Brutal hazing is another ugly fact of life in the army. One conscript, Suren Grigorian, was drafted following his graduation from law school at the end of last year. After a heavy beating by a group of officers, Grigorian was so badly injured he is no longer able to walk.


Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. His mother describes how he continued to be bullied for the seven months he lay in hospital. "They also pressured the medical staff in the hospital, demanding they diagnose my son as mentally unfit," she said. She also alleges that the military prosecutor, Gagik Djangirian, refused to consider her son in any way a victim, and that medical experts would not confirm Grigorian's physical injuries, thus depriving him of the right to claim a disability allowance.


The Kocharian commission's findings have provoked anger among people who see the army as a law unto itself. Ruben Rshtuni, a prominent lawyer, said that the military prosecutor's office had become "a real evil in our country".


"I am ready to break the law just to protect my son from being drafted into the army," said one mother expressing a view shared by many.


The military authorities, not unsurprisingly, are unhappy with the findings and, in a statement July 12, accused the human rights commission of malicious motives. Defence Minister Serge Sarkissian said its report was misleading, as all of its examples are drawn from 1998 and 1999 and that conditions have changed dramatically since then.


"Of course there are problems, even today," he said. "But instead of supporting people who are trying to get to grips with the problems, the human rights commission, journalists and the public are all shouting 'Look! Our soldiers are being tortured.'"


A week after Djangirian made his statement about the Grigorian case, the human rights commission received a further 50 complaints about alleged violations by the military prosecutor and military police. As a result of the protests, the commission asked the Armenian president to dismiss the military prosecutor.


In response, the prosecutor general, Aram Tamazian, cast doubt on the allegations and announced that he would set up his own committee to investigate the claims. No time frame has been announced and observers believe that Tamazian just wants to bury the whole problem.


Both Djangirian and Tamazian, however, were called in front of the presidential commission to account for some of the allegations.


When asked about the soldier who had had his fingers crushed with pliers, Djangirian said that although their investigation had confirmed the injuries, "it was impossible to find out who was responsible for doing it". As for Grigorian, the young lawyer who had been crippled, Djangirian said that the eight officers responsible for the beating would be brought to trial.


The military prosecutor all but confirmed that torture was employed in the army. However, he shied away from using the term - preferring to call it "violent acts".


The process of verifying cases of torture and abuse in the Armenian army will be difficult and is likely to take a long time. However, the fact that a presidential human rights commission has upheld the complaints does show there is an awareness of the country's obligations as a member of the Council of Europe. Lawsuits expected to be brought by the victims of ill-treatment in the army may serve to start reform within the ranks


Jeanna Alexanian is a regular IWPR contributor and a member of Armenian Association of Investigative Journalists.


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