YEREVAN -- An Armenian law-enforcement body investigating the death of a man in police custody says it is trying to contact two key witnesses who left the country after the incident, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS) also denied on May 6 allegations that the witnesses had been ill-treated at the police station in the central town of Charentsavan before leaving the country.
The witnesses -- Norayr Chilian and Arayik Arakelian -- were among several Charentsavan residents detained April 13 on suspicion of involvement in the reported theft of 1.5 million drams ($3,900) worth of goods from a local businessman. One of them, Vahan Khalafian, died in unclear circumstances several hours after police arrested him.
The Armenian police acknowledged on April 30 that he was beaten before allegedly committing suicide.
Unlike the three other suspects, Chilian and Arakelian were released without being charged the same day they were arrested. According to their families, they left for Belgium and Russia, respectively, a few days later.
Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner who met both men before their departure, claimed on May 6 that police forced them to go abroad to
avoid them talking about the police brutality.
"During our conversations, they did not speak about their [forthcoming] departure from the country," he said.
"Usually, those fleeing [the country] are important witnesses who are too dangerous to give testimony," Sakunts said. "Therefore, that means they were very important witnesses in the case and they were simply forced out."
A SIS official told RFE/RL separately that it is trying to locate Chilian and Arakelian so it can question them on the Charentsavan incident. The official said investigators would like to know more about their treatment by police and whether they can shed more light on Khalafian's death.
Two police officers involved in the incident are currently under arrest. One of them was charged last week with beating Khalafian after the latter's refusal to confess to theft. The police insist the 24-year-old stabbed himself to death.
But Khalafian's relatives say he was tortured to death and that an examination of his body proved this version. Rights activist Sakunts also endorsed that view.
It is still not clear whether the SIS agrees with the murder theory or backs the police version of events. The SIS said crucial forensic examinations of Khalafian's body are not finished.