By Ruzanna Stepanian
In an unprecedented public apology, the head of Armenia’s police service has admitted misleading the nation about the recent death of a young man in police custody.
Alik Sargsian on April 30 said he was “deceived” by his subordinates into thinking that Vahan Khalafian was not ill-treated at a police station in Charentsavan, a small town in central Armenia.
“I am going to punish all of my employees who gave me incorrect information and thereby put me in an awkward situation,” he said in a written statement sent to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service through a spokesman.
His statement came one day after Ashot Harutiunian, a senior police officer in Charentsavan, was formally charged with torturing Khalafian to extract a confession about a theft committed in the town. The 24-year-old died in police custody, with his relatives insisting that he was tortured to death.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) said the charge is based on testimony given by other local police officers.
The police have previously denied mistreating Khalafian. “I want to make clear that there was no torture,” Sargsian insisted on April 20.
The police chief, who was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general by President Serzh Sarkisian shortly after the April 13 incident, said on April 30 he based those claims on assurances given to him by the police department of the Kotayk region, which includes Charentsavan.
“I am not going to defend anyone and all the guilty [people] will be punished,” said Sargsian. “I never encouraged beatings. There are more proper ways of doing the job.”
“Let those people whom I misinformed with my statements forgive me,” he added. “As for those who deceived me, they will be punished with all the strictness of the law. I am not going to forgive anyone.”
Sargsian, however, stuck to police claims that Khalafian grabbed a knife from a police officer’s drawer and stabbed himself to death after the interrogation. “I continue to insist that it was suicide,” he said.
National police chief Alik Sargsian
SIS, which is subordinate to state prosecutors, said on April 29 that it will draw a final conclusion about what caused Khalafian’s death only after ongoing forensic examinations of his body are complete.
Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner closely monitoring the case, has backed the Khalafian family’s claim that forensic medics found at least two stab wounds in his stomach.
“How could a tortured and beaten young man quickly find a knife in a room totally unfamiliar to him?” Sakunts told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “How did he know where it was kept? Or did they put the knife on a table and tell him to kill himself?… So I believe what happened was murder.”
While welcoming the police apology, Sakunts said Sargsian should have gone further and stepped down.
“This is not an ordinary incident,” he said. “A person died in police custody. In normal countries, the police chief at least resigns in such circumstances. Not to mention bearing personal responsibility for his subordinates’ abuses.”
“A mere apology can not change the situation,” he added.