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Armenia: Investigation Derailed By Witnesses' Fear

Prosecutor's indictment condemned

Human Rights Watch today condemned the failure by Armenian authorities to level credible charges against the bodyguards of President Robert Kocharian, who were implicated in a September murder.

In the indictment, released December 13, the General Procuracy gave a contorted account of the events leading up to Poghosian's death, passing it off as an accident. However, in a December 7 newspaper interview Procurator General Aram Tamazian acknowledged that the corpse had injuries consistent with torture. Human Rights Watch has gathered compelling information that government security personnel had beaten Poghosian to death.

Although dozens witnessed as the bodyguards began to beat Poghosian on the terrace of the Aragast café, fear of retribution and a resulting conspiracy of silence have starved the investigation of reliable testimony.

"Despite his public expressions of support for the investigation, the reality is that President Kocharian has failed to make witnesses feel safe in coming forward, and so have the law enforcement agencies," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

Shortly after midnight on September 25, eyewitnesses reported seeing a presidential bodyguard ask 43-year-old Poghosian to step with him into the restroom of the café. Minutes earlier, President Kocharian and his guest, the singer Charles Aznavour, had left the café; as they left, Poghosian had said "Hi there, Robik!" to President Kocharian. Several other presidential bodyguards and plainclothes security personnel then rushed into the restroom behind Poghosian and the bodyguard, shutting the door. Ten minutes later an ambulance paramedic pronounced Poghosian dead.

The next day, President Kocharian suspended two bodyguards and the Procurator General's office launched a murder inquiry. After a two-month investigation, the General Procuracy charged presidential bodyguard Aghamal Harutiunian with involuntary manslaughter, the maximum sentence for which is three years' imprisonment. No one else has been charged.

According to the indictment, after an altercation and brawl with Harutiunian, Poghosian "fell over on his back, and hit his head against the ceramic restroom floor, which caused him a serious cranial-brain injury, from which he died." In his December 13 briefing to journalists, Tamazian insisted that Harutiunian had not intended to kill. If he had, Tamazian reasoned, he would have shot Poghosian with his pistol. According to Tamazian, Harutiunian was therefore guilty only of failing to foresee the consequences of his actions, and of carelessness.

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Yerevan in the days immediately following Tamazian's announcement strongly indicated that Poghosian was beaten and kicked to death by a group of security personnel, who also assaulted two of Poghosian's acquaintances as they tried to help him.

"The charge in this case does not reflect the seriousness of the crime, nor does it take into account that there was more than one perpetrator," said Andersen. "It is a nominal charge that sends a chilling message to the Armenian people that state security personnel can kill with virtual impunity."

Law enforcement and security agents in Armenia enjoy broad impunity for abuse, including for torture and deaths in custody. For example, torture by these agents is widespread in Armenia, but few perpetrators are held accountable, in part because victims fear coming forward. According to the U.S. Department of State, judges routinely ignore complaints of torture, even when the perpetrator can be identified. A prominent Armenian lawyer reported to Human Rights Watch last week that in his experience ninety percent of defendants in criminal cases are subjected to torture. All but a handful fail to complain, citing fear of retribution and violence against themselves, their families, or friends.

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