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Armenian Policemen On Trial In Custody Death

Vahan Khalafian, undated

Vahan Khalafian, undated

YEREVAN -- Four police officers have gone on trial in Armenia over the suspicious death of a man at a police station, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The trial opened on July 6 with relatives of the defendants and victim trading insults and scuffling inside and outside the courtroom in Hrazdan.

The main defendant, Major Ashot Harutiunian, is charged with ill-treating Vahan Khalafian, a resident of the town of Charentsavan who was detained on suspicion of theft on April 13. Khalafian was found dead in police custody several hours later.

Armenia's Special Investigative Service, which has investigated the death, says the 24-year-old stabbed himself to death after enduring torture at the hands of Harutiunian and the three other officers on trial.

Khalafian's relatives, backed by some human rights activists, insist the young man was tortured to death and the Special Investigative Service has failed to hold local police officials accountable for his brutal treatment.

Family members of the two sides shouted at each other before the presiding judge adjourned the first court session, citing the absence of a defense lawyer.

Scuffles and fistfights then broke out and had to be stopped by security guards.

Harutiunian's lawyer, Seda Safarian, said last month that her client rejects the accusations leveled against him under an article of the Criminal Code relating to abuse of power that results in "severe consequences." Safarian indicated that Harutiunian considers himself to be a scapegoat.

The lawyer insisted on July 6 that the case had been "badly investigated."

Human rights groups have long regarded police brutality as the most serious and widespread form of human rights violation in Armenia.