(Yerevan) – Four members of an armed opposition group in Armenia, on trial for serious crimes, have alleged that police beat them in custody, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have an obligation to conduct a prompt, thorough, and effective investigation into the alleged beatings and hold to account those responsible for any ill-treatment.
The defendants variously suffered cuts and bruises on their faces, heads, abdomens, backs, and legs in beatings they say took place on June 28, 2017. The men are among 32 being prosecuted in two groups for crimes, including the killing of police officers, committed during the violent takeover of a police station in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, in July 2016.
“Ill-treatment of detainees is strictly prohibited in all circumstances – it’s that simple, and no amount of anger at the crimes these men are charged with, or tension at the trial, can justify physical abuse of the defendants,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have a clear-cut obligation to promptly and thoroughly investigate and bring those responsible to justice.”
At a June 28 hearing at Yerevan’s Erebuni Nubarashen district court, a police officer prevented one of the defendants, Areg Kyureghyan, from passing a note to his lawyer. Kyureghyan and other defendants protested the interference, and defendants and officers argued. Police then removed Kyureghyan and two other defendants, Mkhitar Avetisyan and Smbat Barseghyan, from the courtroom. Lawyers for Kyureghyan, Avetisyan, and two other defendants, Arayik Khandoyan and Gagik Yeghiazaryan, said that police then beat the four defendants in the court’s basement.
Human Rights Watch spoke to three of the men’s lawyers. Avetisyan’s lawyer, Inessa Petrosyan, said that police threw Avetisyan to the ground in the courtroom during the argument. Then police took Avetisyan and Kyureghyan into a basement holding cell with Khandoyan. Avetisyan told his lawyer that after the police took the men into the cell, approximately 10 police entered and beat the three defendants. Police beat Avetisyan on his head, back, and arms. Petrosyan saw bruises on her client when she visited him the next day.
Khandoyan’s lawyer, Ara Gharagyozyan, told Human Rights Watch that policemen beat Khandoyan in the same cell. Authorities had kept Khandoyan out of the June 28 hearing after the judge denied his participation for six hours as punishment for courtroom infractions at a previous hearing. He was kept in the basement holding cell for return to the trial later.
Gharagyozyan met with Khandoyan on the evening of June 28 and saw bruises all over his body. Khandoyan said he had a severe headache and was dizzy. Gharagyozyan requested that Khandoyan be transferred to a local hospital for treatment. As of July 5, he had not received treatment. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm whether he has since received treatment.
Lusine Hakobyan, Yeghiazaryan’s lawyer, said her client, who was in a separate cell, heard screams from men he recognized as his co-defendants and called for officers to stop beating them. Police then entered his cell and beat him. Hakobyan visited Yeghiazaryan the following day and saw injuries consistent with beatings: bruises on his arms and lips, and cuts on his face. She also said that he limped due to pain in his right leg.
On June 29, representatives of Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman visited Avetisyan, Khandoyan, and Yeghiazaryan in detention and documented injuries consistent with beatings. The ombudsman’s office shared the findings with the General Prosecutor’s Office and called for an immediate investigation.
Kyureghyan’s lawyer, Musheg Shushanyan, said in a June 28 statement to the media that police also beat his client in the cell with Avetisyan and Khandoyan. Police beat Kyureghyan in the face, chest, abdomen, back, and legs. Human Rights Watch was not able to reach Shushanyan for an interview.
The lawyers stated that officials at the remand prisons, where the defendants are being held during trial, examined the four men after they were brought back from the court and documented injuries.
The Prison Monitoring Group, a civilian advisory body to the Justice Ministry, on June 29 tried to meet with some of the men at the Nubarashen prison, but prison authorities refused, saying that under orders from investigators, the men are not allowed visitors.
The four men have been on trial since June 8, together with 10 other leading members of the Founding Parliament radical opposition group. They are variously charged with a range of crimes, including killing three police officers, hostage-taking, destruction of property, and weapons theft in conjunction with the July 2016 attack on the police station and subsequent two-week standoff. The gunmen demanded release of their jailed leader and resignation of President Serzh Sarkisyan. The men eventually surrendered.
In a separate ongoing trial, 18 men face similar charges related to the police station takeover and hostage crisis. Both trials are being held in the Avan and Nor-Nork district court building to accommodate the large number of defendants and visitors.
Armenia is a party to multiple human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, that require it to ensure effective investigations and appropriate prosecutions and punishment of officials responsible for serious violations of human rights, including ill-treatment.
On July 3, in response to the allegations of police beatings, the Special Investigative Service of Armenia, a government agency responsible for investigating crimes committed by law enforcement officials, initiated an investigation into whether officials had exceeded their authority. However, police officers alleged to have been involved in the beatings are still on duty in the courtroom. Pending the investigation, any officials under investigation should not undertake any duties related to the trials and the defendants, Human Rights Watch said.
“It is positive that the authorities have initiated an investigation into the incident,” Gogia said. “But to be credible, the investigation has to be effective, meaning that it needs to be thorough, impartial, and capable of identifying abusive officials and bringing them to justice.”