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Former Armenian Teacher Pleads Guilty In Sex Abuse Trial

Levon Avagian speaks at the start of his trial.

Levon Avagian speaks at the start of his trial.

YEREVAN -- A former teacher at a Yerevan school for children with special needs has admitted to sexually and physically abusing his students in a high-profile trial, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Levon Avagian pleaded guilty on May 12 following months of denials of improper conduct at the school. Prosecutors are seeking an 18-month prison sentence.

Police had cleared Avagian of any wrongdoing last summer, instead seeking to prosecute a civic activist who helped to report Avagian as being involved in the sex-abuse scandal.

Mariam Sukhudian, a leader of the environmental protection group SOS Teghut, worked along with several young volunteers at the school from April to June 2008. They spoke to some schoolgirls who alleged they were abused by Avagian.

Sukhudian videotaped one of those girls and alerted Armenian media to her claims in late 2008. The school administration strongly denied the allegations, and Sukhudian was subsequently charged with "false denunciation," a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

But in early March, state prosecutors ordered the police to drop the controversial charges and again turned their attention to Avagian.

Avagian, who left the school last year, was subsequently accused of committing "obscene acts against minors" along with violence and intimidation. He maintained his innocence at the start of the trial on April 26.

In a dramatic about-face, Avagian on May 12 admitted his guilt and asked a Yerevan district court to continue the trial under a so-called "accelerated procedure" that does not involve public questioning of witnesses and victims. Both the presiding judge and the prosecutor accepted the request, despite protests from five former students who had testified against Avagian.

The alleged victims argued they planned to add new abuse claims to their pretrial testimony, which could lead to the toughening of charges leveled against their former teacher.

"When we studied at the Nubarashen school, Mr. Avagian would also beat children. The investigators did not ask us questions about that," Hasmik Sinanian told the court.

The prosecutor, Karen Batikian, accused Avagian of routinely ill-treating and bullying his students with methods "characteristic of feudal systems."

Sinanian told RFE/RL that he believes the sentence being sought by the prosecutor is "too mild." But another alleged victim, Diana Amirkhanian, said she thought 18 months in jail was "enough."

The Nubarashen scandal has raised more questions about Armenia's boarding schools, which are primarily attended by orphans and disabled children. They have long been notorious for a lack of transparency, poor sanitary conditions, and ill-treatment of students.