Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Escape or Torture?: Police under spotlight as death of witness raises questions

May 22, 2007
ArmeniaNow.com, Armenia
By Vahan Ishkhanyan
ArmeniaNow reporter

Human rights activists have joined the number of family members and media who want to see a thorough and independent investigation into the death last Saturday (May 12) of Levon Gulyan, who died in police custody, where he was summoned as a witness to a murder.
Police claim the 30 year old husband and father of two died after falling out a second-floor window while trying to escape from police questioning.

His family and agencies that include the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) are suspicious of the police account of events.

On Thursday Aaron Rhodes, chairman of IHF, sent a letter to the chief of Police Service, encouraging a full investigation, citing a “past record of suspicious cases of death in police custody in Armenia and the fact that torture and ill-treatment by the police remain serious problems”.

Gulyan’s family believe their loved-one was beaten to death by police.

Whatever the cause, his death is linked to May 9, when Stepan Vardanyan, was shot dead near a restaurant owned by Gulyan in the Shengavit district of Yerevan.

Vardanyan was the son of Gagik Vardanyan, who owns a sauna near Gulyan’s restaurant. He was killed about 10 p.m. in what might be gang-related violence, as two other killings have taken place between Vardanyan’s and another clan.

According to restaurant staff, shortly before the killing, Gulyan had asked rival clan members to leave the neighborhood, and had told his staff to stay inside. Gulyan witnessed the murder, but told police he could not identify the killer.

A few hours after the killing, police took Gulyan from his home at about 3 a.m. and held him until about 10:30 p.m., demanding that he return the next day (May 11).

Gulyan returned to police at 10 a.m. the next day (May 11) and was held for 24 hours until he was released, so that he could go to vote in the parliamentary election. He was told to return in two hours.

Gulyan returned as appointed. By 6 p.m. his body was in a city morgue.

In the time after his release for questioning, Gulyan told his family that he had been repeatedly beaten while investigators demanded that he name the killer. According to relatives, Gulyan told police he wanted an attorney present. He claimed he was told by police that if he brought a lawyer, the lawyer would also be beaten. Family members, including an uncle, Hovik Papazyan, say Gulyan told them he had been beaten by Hovik Soghomonyan, deputy head of the Shengavit police department.

The family says that on the day of his death, Gulyan was picked up by Hovik Tamamyan, deputy head of criminal division in the deputy’s own car to be taken to the police department. Sayat Shirinyan, head of the police information and public relations department says Tamamyan is not connected with the case.

Tamamyan has a reputation for cruelty. Two murders are connected with his name. He gained renown in 2004 as the head of the Kentron police department, who harshly squared accounts with the participants of the April rallies, particularly as he allegedly ordered the beating of Mher Ghalachyan, a journalist of the Chorrord Ishkanutyun newspaper. There is information that Tamamyan is a friend of the Vardanyan family and wanted to immediately find the killer.

A statement by the police said: “Gulyan asked one of the department representatives for some water in one of the offices and, taking advantage of the officer’s absence, made an attempt to escape through the window, but, slipping, fell down from the first floor and died immediately of injuries received in the fall.”

Jemma Gulyan was among those protesting her husband’s death

The Gulyans maintain that he was beaten to death and was then thrown from the window.

“Why should my brother try to escape, when he twice went to the police on his own. He wouldn’t go, if he were going to run away,” says he sister Armine.

May 15th Larisa Alaverdyan, the first ombudswoman of Armenia, and director of the non-governmental organization Against Violation of Law, told a press conference summoned on the occasion of Levon Gulyan’s death that the Republic of Armenia Police must take responsibility for Gulyan’s death.

Even if the police explanation that Gulyan slipped while trying to escape were true, what conditions exist to make a cooperative witness try to escape from police questioning?

“This is a harshest violation of the basic right for life. A healthy man enters a state structure, but relatives get back his corpse,” Alaverdyan said.

Another sister, Lilit, said the family will not bury Gulyan until an autopsy has been performed by an outside authority.

Upon the request of the family, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has invited specialists from Denmark and Germany to do a forensic investigation.

The preliminary forensic medical examination states Gulyan’s death was the result of fatal injuries that included fractures of the skull, thorax, spine and ribs.

(The family hired three attorneys, but on May 15, all three withdrew from the case for unknown reasons.)

Police showed journalists the scene of Gulyan’s death, saying that he had fallen while trying to jump to grab a pipe some two meters from the window.

It could be argued, however, that someone attempting to flee through the window could more simply escape by jumping directly to the tin roof of the basement under the window. It also appears that someone who would have fallen reaching for the pipe, would have landed on the roof, rather than the asphalt. However, no marks appeared on the roof indicating such a fall.

The Gulyan family was accepted by deputy heads of the police Ararat Mahtesyan and Armen Yeritsyan, who promised to hold an unbiased investigation and to reveal all its findings.

However, both press and rights activists are skeptical about the possibility the guilty is found. As a rule murders committed inside the police are not disclosed. In the rare cases available, police officers are tried for alleged abuse of power and not murders.

A year ago ArmeniaNow published an article on the case of Armen Ghambaryan, who suffered a ruptured spleen while in police custody (see Accused Accusers).Neither Ghambaryan’s nor his lawyer’s protests to find the person responsible came to any result, while Ghambaryan, despite his bad health, is still in the isolation cell.

A press conference has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, during which preliminary findings of forensic specialists from Denmark and Germany will be released.

A site has been launched in connection with Gulyan’s case www.levon-gulyan.info .

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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