Maro’s lips were painted a deep pink color, her eyelids dusted with a pearl-hued powder, her eyebrows angular and shapely, and her cheeks speckled with beauty marks. She wore a bed of white roses on her shirt, her body resting on a golden silk sheet. Maro looked peaceful, as the plump hands of an older woman—possibly her mother—pulled back the collar of her shirt to expose the bruised neck for the curious photojournalist to see. That photograph, one in a series of six, is now a piece in a puzzle that may reveal what happened to the 20-year-old mother of an infant girl—but only if a local Armenian court agrees to reopen the investigation into Maro Gulyan’s untimely death in July 2012.
The official story—based on witness testimonies—claims Maro, a resident of the village of Arinch in Kotayk province, hanged herself in the bathroom using a belt from a bathrobe. It was said that suicidal tendencies ran in her blood, as two of her brothers had reportedly committed suicide. Investigators found no foul play, and closed the case.
Her parents, however, insist Maro—four months pregnant at the time—was the victim of homicide. They believe her 26-year-old husband Gevorg may be responsible for her murder, and are pleading with prosecutors to reopen the case, and to look at evidence they say was previously ignored.
Lusine Minasyan, a lawyer with the Women’s Resource Center based in Yerevan, is representing Maro’s father, Roman. “We don’t believe that what occurred was suicide because there are many contradictions in the case, as well as unexplained circumstances,” she told the Armenian Weekly. There are also the post-mortem photographs of Maro that may support the parents’ narrative.
Aside from the family lawyer, women’s and human rights activists are also pressuring authorities to spend more time on the case. The autopsy report, they argue, ignored signs that could have ruled out the death as suicide.
“The forensic doctor failed to note all the injuries on Maro’s body, such as the injuries on her left leg, [the scratch] on the lower part of her cheek, and the bruised fingers. There were no physical signs of suicide on the body, such as bleeding in the eyes, the tongue protruding out of the mouth, and the blackening of the face and limbs,” Anna Nikoghosyan, the program manager at Society Without Violence (SWV), told the Weekly.
The forensic doctor reportedly suggested that the bruises on Maro’s hands occurred when she washed a rug some time before her death, and that the scratch on her cheek came from her own fingernail, as she tried to free herself from the noose. Minasyan, however, has argued that Maro’s nails were cut short at the time of her death, and that the deep scratch on her face begs a different explanation.
Domestic violence and a life of gambling
Family and friends say that Maro’s husband Gevorg was a gambling addict, and that the couple would often fight over finances. According to them, Maro would have to borrow from her family to cover her husband’s gambling debts. Shortly before her death, he had again asked that she appeal to her brother for a loan. But Maro’s woes did not end there; she was constantly subjected to physical violence, say her parents.
The gambling, said Nikoghosyan, “was one of the reasons why Maro was always subjected to physical violence, though she never called the police. Unfortunately, there are no records of this except for an oral report.”
In the weeks leading up to her death, Maro had been more vocal about leaving her husband. Finally, one day in July, Maro called her twin brother Mher and asked him to come to her house. There, she told him she had decided to separate from her husband. That evening, her parents were to come by and bring her home. What transpired after Mher departed remains a mystery, as does the presence of alcohol in Maro’s body.
The account provided by Gevorg’s aunt—the wife of Gevorg’s uncle on his father’s side—was accepted as fact by investigators of the case. The aunt claimed that she went to the couple’s house and called out their names. Receiving no response, she walked through the house and into the bathroom where she saw Maro, hanging. She then got a kitchen knife, and while holding Maro up with one hand, she cut the belt with the other, and laid her on the ground.
Minasyan does not buy this version of events. Using a dummy of comparable weight and height to Maro’s, she replayed the scene.
“It is inexplicable how a woman of average age and structure could hold that much weight— without dropping the body on the floor and without causing further injuries. The bathrobe belt was four centimeters wide, while the injury on Maro’s neck was only two centimeters wide. If we suppose that the belt became narrower due to stretching, then the wound on her neck should be deeper. There were no signs of [strangulation from a] rope on the neck—we received this explanation from the lawyer,” said Nikoghosyan.
Maro’s parents believe the bruise on her neck was in fact caused by fingers—implying someone had strangled their daughter.
What happened to Maro’s body between 7 p.m., the time the body was discovered according to the testimonies, and 9 p.m., when the hospital recorded her admittance? “How long and where was Maro kept? The investigating body has not compared witness testimonies,” said Nikoghosyan.
Instead of examining the case further, investigators chose to close the investigation earlier than expected, according to Minasyan.
The husband’s familial relations may have compromised the investigation, which led Minasyan to apply for the transfer of the case from Apovyan to Yerevan. “We want the case to be transferred to Yerevan because we have found that—aside from the fact that the victim’s husband’s family has ties with certain authority figures in Kotayk province—it is meaningless to leave the case in the city of Apovyan… We doubt that the case will be examined objectively in Kotayk,” she said.
While the Women’s Resource Center provided the family with legal support, SWV helped Maro’s parents publicize the case to the media. They argued that the real circumstances of her death continue to be covered up because of the absence of the rule of law, whereby disputes and criminal cases are often dealt with through intervention from neighborhood bosses. Maro’s husband Gevorg, they say, is related to the powerful Guloyan family in Apovyan. The city’s mayor is Garabed Guloyan, the son-in-law of the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, Gagik Tsaroukyan. The mayor’s father is Parliamentarian Murat Guloyan.
“The case must be transferred to Yerevan, because we are worried that the local authorities influenced the investigation process. In the capital we hope to have a more fair, transparent, and objective examination of the case,” said Nikoghosyan.
Civil society ups the pressure
To reopen the investigation, Minasyan, along with activists from the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, requested the prosecutor general’s intervention. On June 17, they congregated in front of his office, holding signs that read: “Maro did not commit suicide,” “Punish the abuser,” “Don’t hide the truth,” “Nothing can justify abuse,” and “Women, know your rights!”
“We went to the prosecutor general’s office because it is the body that can reopen the investigation. When the case was still being examined, we filed our complaints with the prosecutors, but they disregarded them and announced that they had already closed the case. Because the investigation had already been cut short, and the prosecutor in Kotayk had denied our plea to recant its decision, we decided to appeal to the prosecutor general. This is our last resort. The prosecutor general should familiarize himself with the details of the case and invalidate the breaches that took place during the investigation,” said the lawyer.
Break the silence and adopt a law
Like Zaruhi Petrosyan’s murder in 2010, Maro’s case has become a rallying cry for the adoption of a law that specifically deals with domestic violence. A draft bill was proposed to the government, which in turn rejected it, promising to alter existing laws to extend protection to victims of domestic abuse. Activists say such steps lack effectiveness and avoid extending resources to support shelters and other services.
Maro’s case also highlights the need for widespread advocacy work on domestic violence. “This is important for all women and girls in Armenia. We simply don’t know how many deaths have been covered up as accidents and suicides. Abusers never accept responsibility for their acts. We saw this in the case of Zaruhi Petrosyan, whose husband wanted to portray her death as an accident, and we see this with Maro as well,” the director of the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan, Maro Matosian, told the Armenian Weekly. “Such high-profile cases allow us to bring the subject of domestic violence to the attention of the population, to expose the dangers of silence, to break the stigma of shame, and to make it clear to authorities that these issues cannot be brushed off.”
Matosian, whose organization provides support to victims of domestic violence, believes that until the government adopts a law against domestic violence, it bears responsibility for the deaths that result from that violence, as it provides no support for victims, including shelter and programs to reintegrate them into society.
Maro’s family insists that she continuously suffered physical abuse, yet not a single report was filed with the police. Why? Perhaps it was the stigma attached to it, or her distrust in the police, or the need to resolve disputes internally, without interference from outsiders.
“Maro’s case is an unfortunate example for family members who remain silent, and for neighbors and friends who look the other way,” said Matosian.
Irrespective of the exact circumstances of her death, Maro could have been alive today if the proper avenues were available. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, allegedly marked by abuse, it is clear that the young mother was not able to escape her tragic demise. Maro’s death highlights yet again the need for widespread awareness campaigns on domestic violence. Armenia’s government must be made to spearhead a nationwide effort, and commit to taking the necessary steps—from adopting a law to launching campaigns, establishing shelters and hotlines, providing legal help, and training doctors and medical professionals to properly address cases of domestic violence. Their inaction fosters more violence.