Two separate incidents that claimed the lives of 7 men from the ranks of Armenia’s armed forces during the last days of July have stirred emotions, criticism, and outrage, and have led to the dismissal of 8 military officers and the demotion of 13 others.
The first incident took place on July 27, when Lieutenant Artak Nazarian was found dead at an army outpost in the northeastern Tavush region on the border with Azerbaijan. The military claimed the lieutenant had shot himself with a machine gun. His relatives insisted he was killed by fellow servicemen. A forensic examination revealed many injuries to his face, shoulders, hands, and feet, believed to have been inflicted hours before his death. “If it were a suicide, just imagine how much suffering and humiliation he endured before resorting to that. If it was a murder, just imagine what predators live among us,” said Nazarian’s older sister Sona.
Military investigators acknowledged that Nazarian was subjected to abusive treatment by at least one officer. The Defense Ministry stated that a criminal investigation is being conducted under the criminal code article that deals with “inducing suicides” through violence and humiliation. Four servicemen have been arrested in connection with Nazarian’s death; one of them is suspected of beating and humiliating Nazarian, the other three of assaulting him, reported RFE/RL.
A day later, five soldiers and their commander were shot dead in Martuni, Karabagh. One of the soldiers, 21-year-old Karo Ayvazian, allegedly shot the five servicemen and turned the gun on himself.
Human rights activist Arthur Sakunts told Armenia Now that when officers at the outpost discovered 20-year-old conscript Andranik Sargsyan asleep on his watch, and began insulting and humiliating him, Ayvazian–who was also on the same watch–shot the officers, then himself, in an attempt to defend his comrade. Sargsyan was also killed during the incident, but it was not clear whether he was a target or a victim of a stray bullet.
According to relatives, Ayvazian had emigrated to the U.S. with his mother in 1992. Eleven years later, he was deported to Armenia due to a long criminal record, which included robbery and illegal weapons possession. His first jail sentence came when he was 13 years old. He spent the following years in and out of prisons, with a brief stay at a psychiatric clinic.
Ayvazian’s uncle, Anushavan Mikaelian, said both he and his father warned a military commissariat and the Defense Ministry about his nephew’s past, and his unsuitability to be in the armed forces. “If law was enforced in Armenia, Karo Ayvazian would not have been drafted at all,” he was quoted by RFE/RL as saying. Mikaelian was referring to a law that prevents draft-age males from serving if they have spent three or more years behind bars.
Mikaelian further claimed that an official at the commissariat was willing to exempt Ayvazian from service only in exchange for a $4,000 bribe.
A Defense Ministry official denied these accusations, and said the relatives had not produced any official U.S. document verifying their claims.
A week after the incidents occurred, the Defense Ministry announced the dismissal of eight servicemen, which included commanders, deputy commanders, and other top officials. Thirteen others were demoted, and another 20 received official reprimands. Colonel Felix Baghdasaryan, commander of the “N” military unit in Martuni, Karabagh, where the six servicemen were killed, was among those dismissed, reports Hetq. Addressing the dismissed officers, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said, “For you, your officer’s dignity means nothing. I think that you have no place in our ranks anymore. Enough is enough,” reported RFE/RL.
Criticisms are voiced
Human rights activists and critics say these are not isolated cases, and that the authorities are interested in sweeping such “inconveniences” under the rug rather than conducting serious investigations and addressing the causes of violence and abuse within the army.
“Official press releases must be put aside and the incidents must be investigated independently. In any case, no one believes the information provided in those press releases anyway,” said investigative reporter Edik Baghdasaryan, the editor-in-chief of Hetq, during an interview with Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian.
In an article published in the Weekly, Maria Titizian wrote, “Abuse within our country’s armed forces has been documented for years. The army has claimed that the number of deaths due to mistreatment has been declining, and while hazing is a common practice in armies throughout the world, our numbers do not give us the luxury of killing each other. The Defense Ministry, military leaders, generals, commanders, sergeants, officiers are all to blame. And so are we, the ordinary people, because for the most part we have remained silent.”
On Aug. 10, military analyst Vahram Mirakyan said he was surprised there had been calls by the public for Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan to commit suicide reported in the press. “If you believe, for instance, that corruption is at the heart of the problems in the Armenian Army, then the mere resignation of Minister of Defense Seyran Ohaniyan will not rectify the problem and those guilty will not be punished,” he was reported as saying by Hetq.
History of abuse in armed forces
Abuse in Armenia’s armed forces has been an ongoing problem. The U.S. State Department’s yearly country report on human rights practices for Armenia shows that the number of reported military deaths due to hazing, suicides, or both, and the number of persons convicted of hazing and other related violations, have increased in the past two years, and almost doubled from 2007-08.
There may be a variety of explanations for the noticeable increase, including a rise in investigations, punishments, or negligence in reporting such deaths in previous years. However, it is noteworthy that in November 2007 a new military adviser was appointed to the human rights defender’s staff to deal with hazing and other human rights issues in the military. According to the Soldiers’ Mothers NGO, in 2008, cases of soldiers having serious health conditions being conscripted into service went down 70 percent from 2007, according to the 2008 country report.
According to the 2009 report, in the first 11 months of 2009, 42 deaths were registered in the army. The Armenian Defense Ministry reported that 7 of these deaths were due to alleged abuse and mistreatment, and 11 were suicides (two of which were “induced”). The military prosecutor reported different figures: two deaths due to alleged abuse and mistreatment, and six due to suicides (two “induced”). Thirty-eight military personnel were convicted of hazing and related practices and 45 other cases were under trial.
Sixty-nine deaths were registered in 2008, of which 9 were killings (three possibly by enemy fire), and 8 were suicides; 85 military personnel were convicted of hazing and related violations.
In 2007, there were three army homicides and four suicides that had resulted from military-related hazing. That year, 37 military personnel were convicted on hazing charges.
The 2006 report only noted the number of personnel convicted of hazing and related violations (the figure was 20); no hazing related deaths were reported. And in 2005, the military prosecutor’s office investigated six deaths, three of which were hazing-related.
Human rights groups have insisted that most army suicides were homicides, but tampering with evidence on the part of army officers made them appear as suicides. In June 2008, the families of soldiers who had died during military service between 2005-08 issued a statement in which they accused authorities of systematically carrying out false investigations, and destroying or tampering with evidence to pass homicides off as accidents, suicide, or as results of sniper attacks, notes the 2008 state report.
Azerbaijani media feasts on debacle
The Azerbaijani media covered the two incidents extensively, often reprinting articles from Armenian sources. A Today.Az article claimed that the cause of abuse in the Armenian Army was the lack of military funds. “Frugal military budget does not allow Armenian soldiers not only to receive modern military equipment and clothing but also eat normally. No one wants to serve in the Armenian army. This, in turn, leads to unhealthy atmosphere in the military. As a result, military hazing in the neighboring army has been reported almost every day for many years.”
The article repeatedly referred to the moral decay in the Armenian Army, and the loss of hope and trust by the Armenians in the army: “Relatives of the dead soldiers and officers invariably ask the question: why should their children from Armenia die for land of strangers–Azerbaijan land? After all, majority of those who died during recent incidents hail precisely from Armenia, but not Karabagh.”
Another Azerbaijani news source, 1news.az, quoted reserve colonel Ildirim Mammadov as saying, “nothing has changed in the Armenian army since the Soviet times…censorship is strict there, even worse than in the Soviet times and the public is not aware of what is happening within the army.” According to Mammadov, the main causes for “the degradation” within the army is the current “bitter hangover” following years of “victory of Armenian forces,” a “chronic lack of money,” and “extreme violence in the Armenian armed forces.”
Meanwhile an Aug. 6 article on News.Az insisted that Armenia is acting deceptively regarding the Karabagh conflict, since it claims that no Armenian citizens serve in Karabagh, while in fact the July 28 shootings happened in Karabagh’s Martuni district and all servicemen came from Armenia. “Baku should inform the international community that the Karabagh Armenians are not really struggling for independence, since it is clearly Armenia that is occupying a swathe of Azerbaijani land,” concluded the article.
The July incidents have been closely and persistently covered by some Azerbaijani news channels. News.az alone has (re)printed some 11 articles. However, it is worth noting that Azerbaijan’s media does not extend such generosity in covering cases of homicides, mysterious deaths, and suicides that take place in Azerbaijan’s own army. When they do, most, if not all, reports are snippets of what seem to be the Defense Ministry’s official rhetoric.
There is not a lack of tragic incidents to be covered. 2010 alone has seen a number of incidents in Azerbaijan that beg to be investigated. In March, 19-year-old Vasif Aliyev shot and killed a fellow serviceman, Elchin Mammadov, in Tovuz military unit. Two weeks later, Agshin Huseynov, a warrant officer in the army, hung himself. In May, Elvar Bayramov died after being fatally wounded by bullets from an automatic weapon, “under unclear circumstances.” In June, Private Jaffar Mamedrzayev killed two other soldiers, wounded a third, and took his own life.
The actions of the Azeri press remind me of the saying, “You can’t see the stake in your own eyeball but you notice the splinter in someone else’s eye.”
On Aug. 10, military analyst Vahram Mirakyan noted that the Azerbaijani press wrote about their army only in a positive light, which, he said, was worse than highlighting its flaws. “It is better to write only the negative stuff than to write nothing at all. Not being critical leads to a blunting of alertness,” said Mirakyan, as quoted by Hetq.
Transparency, accountability needed
Regardless of what Armenia’s neighbors may write to fuel their propaganda machine, acknowledging and addressing the problems that haunt Armenia’s army is preferable to presenting a manicured picture-perfect image. The recent tragic incidents make this need for serious investigations, transparency, and accountability all the more evident, and dare we say overdue.
Edik Baghdasaryan told the Weekly, “Our one major achievement since independence is the army–it is our one victory–and these officials must not be allowed to squander it. There are many unanswered questions in the murders of the six [servicemen]; and there is little evidence, if any, supporting the explanation that is being circulated,” adding that Hetq is currently investigating the matter and will publish the findings.
Meanwhile Artak Nazarian’s mother holds out hope for bringing to justice the individual(s) who might have directly or indirectly caused the death of her \son on July 27. “The death of our Artak must be a lesson to others. We’ll go to the end in order to identify the guilty and have them punished with all the strictness of the law so that there is no repeat of such cases,” she was reported as saying by RFE/RL.
Armenia is better off going ahead and starting to wash its dirty laundry before the world, rather than leaving it to fester!