The family of a conscript in Nagorno-Karabakh’s army who died last week have disputed the official finding that his death was a suicide.
The army announced on 30 January that conscript soldier Vahram Avagyan had died from a gunshot wound. He was 20 years old.
The Investigative Committee of Armenia announced that evening that Avagyan shot himself in the chest with an AKM assault rifle. He was rushed to a military hospital where he died an hour later. A criminal case was launched on inciting suicide.
Avagyan’s family has disputed that his death was a suicide, and have claimed he was murdered.
On 2 February, the day of the funeral, the grieving family and residents of their village, Haytagh, in the western Armavir Province, tried to take his coffin to the Ministry of Defence in Yerevan to demand answers. They were stopped by the police near the motorway entrance to Yerevan.
Avagyan’s family claimed that the authorities were already calling the incident a suicide despite a forensic examination not yet being done.
Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan, Army General Chief of Staff Artak Davtyan, and the president of parliament’s Defence Committee, Andranik Kocharyan, met with the family and protesters soon after.
‘This is a matter of pride’, the minister stated. ‘I’m here to make sure everything takes place according to the law.’
Tonoyan later spoke separately with Avagyan’s father, after which the family took the coffin back to bury their son. Tonoyan joined them later at the funeral service.
Avagyan’s family told Tert.am that he had gone home on vacation ten days before the incident happened. They claimed he was psychologically well and had even talked to his brothers and friend on the phone hours before his alleged suicide took place without giving cause for concern.
During the protest, the Investigative Committee announced that three conscript soldiers that were serving alongside Avagyan at the same military unit had been arrested on suspicion of ‘violating the code of conduct between servicemen in the absence of subordinate relations between them causing grave consequences’.
If found guilty, they could face from four to eight years in prison. One of the three arrested is Davit Movsisyan, the son of former Republican Party MP Arakel Movsisyan, better known by his nickname Shmays (after a German Schmeisser pistol he owned and used during the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the early 1990s).
Avagyan’s relatives as well as the head of the Journalists for Human Rights NGO Zhanna Alexanyan, have claimed that Avagyan’s death occurred in front of 30-40 soldiers at the military base’s shooting range.
An ‘elite’ base
On 2 February, Aurora News published an article on the military base where Avagyan served, claiming it was rife with abuse.
They said the base was considered ‘elite’ and that the children of prominent figures often served there.
The article cited an inside source as telling them that a ‘clan’ had formed in the base which subjected ordinary conscripts to abuse, including extorting money.
The source reportedly said they were not sure if Avagyan’s death was a suicide but that the clan within the military base were to blame either way.
According to Aurora News, several months ago, another conscript was found dead at the same base and his death too was assumed to be a suicide.
‘However, no announcements on his death were given by official sources or mass media’, the article stated. ‘We talked to Naira Harutyunyan, Head of Public Relations at the Investigative Committee, and she informed us that the death took place seven months ago, however, there were no suspects in the case.’
Nagorno-Karabakh’s army responded with a statement soon after claiming that the military base was indeed ‘elite’ in that it had played a major role during the conflict in the early 1990s and the Four-Day April War in 2016 by preventing Azerbaijani attacks and forcing them to sign a ceasefire.
‘The “fact” that the sons of prominent officials serve in that base is information manipulation’, the statement read. ‘The location of where new conscripts have to serve is done solely on a lottery principle, no matter whose sons they are.’
‘Criminal elements’ prevalent in the ranks
The incident came after Armenia’s parilament unanimously passed a bill on 21 January making the punishment for inciting someone to suicide in the military more severe.
The bill, which was co-authored by five MPs from the Prosperous Armenia faction, includes two new articles: one on ‘carelessly inciting a soldier to commit suicide’, punishable by six to nine years in prison or up to ten years during a time of war, and another for ‘indirectly inciting a soldier to commit suicide deliberately’, which foresees stricter punishments including up to 14 years imprisonment.
The current law on inciting someone to suicide is punishable by three to five years in prison.
In an interview with OC Media, human rights activist Zaruhi Hovhannisyan said that the Ministry of Defence lacked public trust. She said that in most of the reported suicides in the army, there was some level of suspicion that they were not in fact suicides.
‘No preventative measures have been taken and nobody is being held accountable.’
According to Hovhannisyan, there should be more oversight by military commanders of the psychological state their soldiers are in. ‘These are young boys who just bid their childhood farewell and will be living away from their families for the first time’, she said. ‘They don’t know how to protect their rights.’
Hovhannisyan said the Ministry of Defence should focus on protecting human rights in the army, especially considering that ‘criminal subcultural elements’ were prevalent in the ranks of soldiers and officers.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.