YEREVAN — Ignoring his protestations of innocence, a court in Armenia on Monday sentenced a police officer to eight years in prison on charges stemming from the death of a man in police custody.
One of Major Ashot Harutiunian’s subordinates received a suspended two-year prison sentenced, while two others were acquitted altogether amid furious allegations of a cover-up voiced by relatives of both the main defendant and the victim, Vahan Khalafian.
Khalafian, 24, died on April 13 several hours after being taken, along with several other men, to the police station of Charentsavan, a small town in central Armenia, on suspicion of theft. His death had a strong public resonance, highlighting endemic police brutality in Armenia.
State prosecutors say that Khalafian stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife after being physically abused by Harutiunian in the presence of the three other policemen. The latter’s incriminating testimony formed the basis of the case brought against the former head of the criminal investigations unit at the Charentsavan police.
Khalafian’s relatives, backed by some human rights activists, believe that the young man was killed at the Charentsavan police station and that investigators failed to prosecute all local police officials responsible for his brutal treatment. They argue, in particular, that forensic experts found two stab wounds and numerous other injuries all over his body.
Harutiunian echoed these assertions throughout the trial that began in early July. He argued that Khalafian left no fingerprints on the knife and could have hardly stabbed himself twice.
Harutiunian also maintained that unlike the other defendants, he was not in the interrogation room moments before Khalafian was found critically injured. Speaking in the court in August, he claimed that one of them, Moris Hayrapetian, “negligently caused Vahan Khalafian to die.”
The officer implicitly pointed the finger at Samvel Tonoyan, the deputy chief of Charentsavan’s police department, in his final trial speech delivered on November 22. He said he heard “noise and bangs” after Tonoyan entered the interrogation room. The chief trial prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, brushed aside these claims.
Tonoyan was never prosecuted and managed to retain his post following the deadly incident. He could not be reached for comment on Monday.
“They know very well that it was Tonoyan who hit and killed [Khalafian,]” Harutiunian’s mother alleged following the announcement of the verdict. She and other relatives of the convicted officer denounced the trial as unfair, saying that Harutiunian was made a scapegoat by the Armenian police.
Khalafian’s relatives also angrily condemned the ruling in and outside the courtroom. “My son did not commit suicide,” cried his mother, Anahit. “They in the government didn’t want this case to be solved,” said his sister.
Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman, on Monday again voiced serious misgivings about the official version of the April incident. “As a lawyer, I would be wrong to criticize the court’s decision,” he told RFE/RL. “But as a human rights defender, my internal voice tells me not to think that it was a suicide.”
Asked whether he thinks the trial was fair, the ombudsman said, “The answer to that question is not clear-cut for me.”

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