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Armenian Army Scrambles To Tackle Abuse After Spate Of Deaths

Many servicemen have been suspended or demoted on charges of abuse
Many servicemen have been suspended or demoted on charges of abuse
YEREVAN -- Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian this month faced the uneasy task of comforting parents whose sons were found dead after suffering vicious treatment in the army.

The meeting, in which the minister vowed to harshly punish the culprits, was part of his uphill battle to rehabilitate the army's image following a spate of suspicious deaths that have caused nationwide outrage and an online video showing an officer brutalizing young conscripts.

Speaking in a television interview this week, Ohanian declared war on the rampant abuse, corruption, and mismanagement that have plagued the country's army. The armed forces, he acknowledged, will have to work hard to regain the trust of soldiers' parents.

His remarks echoed an earlier pledge made this summer following a shooting rampage that left six soldiers dead.

"As the defense minister of the Republic of Armenia, I am fully aware of our army's problems. I want to assure you that the leadership of the armed forces has done and is doing everything to root out the causes of such incidents and to prevent human losses," Ohanian said.

Ohanian's campaign to make the army more accountable marks a strong departure from the secrecy that shrouded the army under his predecessors.

Military 'Impunity'

Many Armenians, weary of the impunity that the army has enjoyed over the past two decades, have welcomed his humble tone and his determination in punishing abusive officers.

Dozens of servicemen have been suspended or demoted this year on charges of abusing fellow soldiers, and many face stiff prison sentences.

The Defense Ministry has set up a board composed of human rights activists, doctors, and psychologists to scrutinize the treatment of soldiers.

The ministry has also submitted to parliament draft legislation that would allow soldiers to challenge unlawful orders from their superiors.

Gegham Harutiunian, one of Ohanian's aides, says the Defense Ministry's campaign to crack down on army abuse is bearing fruit.

"Today, it seems unimaginable that a case involving someone abusing his position and acting against his subordinate would remain undisclosed and the perpetrator would go unpunished. We clearly see that this policy is being pursued," Harutiunian said.

Ohanian and his ministry nonetheless face lingering public resentment over the recent deaths.

Among the victims is 30-year-old Artak Nazarian, a junior officer who military investigators say shot himself in July following mistreatment at his unit in northeast Armenia.

Hazing Video

Nazarian's relatives, however, believe he was murdered and claim the forensic examination found evidence that he had been physically abused.

Speaking to RFE/RL Nazarian's mother, Hasmik Hovannisian, said, "Who will stop these criminals? How can mothers send their sons to the army now? Who will give us answers? The man I sent to the army was sound and healthy. Bring my son back."

One day after Nazarian's death, six servicemen were found shot dead at a unit deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The army says one of the servicemen, a young conscript, went on a shooting spree and killed himself after a bitter dispute with an officer.
Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian

The serviceman's family, too, has challenged this account and accused the military of covering up the truth.

In the latest incident to rock the army, a senior officer assaulted an 18-year-old at his unit near Yerevan in late October.

Erik Grigorian was hospitalized with multiple injuries, including a broken nose. His father, Gagik, said he was brutally beaten up for more than one hour in front of other servicemen.

"He allegedly failed to report for duty in the morning and was brutally beaten for this. He was battered. Erik's fellow soldiers say they were too scared to stop the beating," Grigorian said.

The officer has since been charged over the beating and awaits trial on charges that could send him to prison for up to five years.

The release of a video showing an army officer slapping and humiliating two soldiers has further stoked public anger.

The army tracked down and detained the officer after initially questioning the authenticity of the clip, posted on the Internet in September. He, too, faces up to five years in jail if convicted.

Like many Armenians, many rights campaigners have praised Ohanian's unprecedented efforts to punish abusive servicemen.

But some say the recent violence shows the army is losing its battle against abuse and are calling on Ohanian to step down.

"If the actions ordered by the defense minister produce no results, then he must resign," says Artur Sakunts, the head of Helsinki Citizens Assembly of Armenia rights group. "On the other hand, replacing one person obviously would not have any impact because the problem is systemic."

Claire Bigg contributed to this story

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