Til Death Do Us Part: ‘Suicide’ Reignites Demands for Domestic Violence Legislation

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.

(photo by Anahid Hayrabedyan for Medialab.am)
(photo by Anahid Hayrabedyan for Medialab.am)

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.

Maro 2

Case compromised?

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.

Maro 3Irrespective 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.

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. If there are laws on the books for murder and assault and battery, why are “domestic violence” laws necessary? Since when have more laws made a difference? Has anyone of these people stopped to ask, if there specific

  2. if these laws wouldn’t have prevented the murder what is the true motivation of those who jump on obviously emotional events to call for “domestic violence” laws. Bottom line if your getting your head bashed in, maybe you should leave. Why does anyone think that the government has all the answers, when personal responsibility would solve the issue far more effectively, without the establishment of a “shelter”and advocate industry.

    • Shelters are for when the abuser can find and cause harm to the woman who has left. A lot of times, leaving is not enough because the abuser is motivated to find and continue causing harm.

  3. Is this “legislation” going to take the same shape as the US laws where the Male of the species is automatically guilty until proven innocent?

    • Yes, the whole purpose of such “legislation” is to unjustly find men guilty of domestic abuse, which really doesn’t exist.

      hagopn, how many men do you think are unjustly accused compared to the ones who are justly and correctly accused, plus the ones that never get brought to court, even though they should. How big a problem do you think this is?

  4. You side-stepped the issue. You probably don’t know the answer to your question as well. I have seen men unjustly accused, have their lives ruined, have their family torn apart, where the woman simply wants another lover in the end, but that is truly not the central point.

    “Legislation” of this sort is the first step at taking another stab at family autonomy, at that “dastardly patriarchy”, and weakening the family, at creating an environment where marriages will be “guarded” by the State.

    Such “legislation” is of course porous as all heck in the US, where an random individual can do the reporting and create a situation, similar to the child abuse laws where any random individual can create chaos in your home by simply calling the authorities.

    Find other solutions for this. Finance films, educational material, literature, that targets this, and, yes, even religious means, but keep the damned State out of it.

    • hagopn,

      The main issue here is domestic abuse, violence and even murder, which is very real and needs to be dealt with. We have laws for theft, murder, rape and all sorts of other crimes by the state, but we can’t have one for where domestic violence? Why is this different than other crimes that the state can’t get into it?

      There are many people who have been wrongly accused of a crime, but that does not mean those laws should be repealed. Same applies to domestic violence. Not only that, women have been helped from such domestic laws.

      And what does “family autonomy” mean? Please explain. Does that mean anything goes in a household and laws can’t interfere? Again please explain.

      Religion, film, education, PR have been applied to all sorts of other crimes. While those have helped, such crimes continue to happen. That’s where the law and legal system comes in. And that should be the same here.

  5. Let me add also that journalism such as this probably has more of an impact than any government intervention, especially law enforcement intervention. One of the possible reasons for inaction by one of these poor women is distrust of police! Are we to trust an increasingly abusive institution in the prevention of abuse?

    Shelters are a must, provided that they are a true safe havens, something that women should be able to resort to first and foremost without making this matter public. If we’re talking about public funding for this, then that would be a priority IMHO.

    Making the extremely personal matter public and dragging it into the State driven system, especially the justice system, or forcing the woman to make it a legal law enforcement matter opens her up for retribution. It is an extremely sensitive situation where she’s probably dealing with a mindset that has many multiple generations of habit inherited and justified in the minds of her abuser. It is also likely his family background has many live models to feed his behavior. How is she to confront this with whose help exactly?

    Public condemnation of such behavior is a second priority, and here’s where journalism such as the above makes an impact. Yet, I see no one dealing with the historical and geopolitical context contributing, perhaps as the primary contributor. We have, after all, neighboring states whose religious laws sanction wife beating as a default awarded privilege. Are we going to try to learn about ourselves and our history, truly find a way to peel away at these dark years and dark habits?

    There’s so much to say on such a huge topic. I hope this opens up a more mature discussion than “pass laws, emasculate them! Men are evil!”

    This is the core of it all, and I truly am thankful for the journalist above.

    By the way, where is our church in all this? Is the Church providing shelter, or is that too much to ask?

  6. Your responses are well noted and appreciated.

    I don’t pretend that there is no criminality in spousal abuse, which is a more proper term, as apparently in the so-called developed countries husband abuse seems to be much more common than previously thought. I have seen husband abuse among Armenians as well. In situations where there is obvious battering and abuse, laws probably exist that are perhaps not enforced due to the cultural biases that sometimes override these laws. There are instances of this in even “developed” countries where the populations have been, for the lack of a better term, properly brainwashed into automatically condemning domestic violence of any sort.

    As to the automony argument: Child abuse and spousal abuse are much more potent crimes in terms of having impact on really what is the core of society, the family. Yes, families need to be more autonomous in managing their own affairs, and in the area of child rearing and development especially the State is inherently insensitive, careless, callous, blind and incompetent. Hence the reason every long-standing religion abhors State involvement in family affairs.

    As I mentioned in my other response, the historical and geopolitical contexts of having been ruled by Muslim empires has had its toll.

    Does this mean that this family model shields criminal behavior? Ironically I have seen the weakening of family bonds to be the primary catalyst for criminal behavior. As a subset, when leading members of a family feel they have no power, they will usually resort to more extreme measures for control. When you have a paradigm that defines battering as spousal “discipline” versus abuse, the problem is compounded with the likely consequence of retribution.

    What to do when the situation is as for the woman who was murdered? I am again referring to her inaction due to distrust of the police! I have no answer except for some safe haven, shelter governed by a non-State entity, something that does not at first involved the Law.

  7. hagopn

    Your last question is very interesting ! As far as I am informed our
    church has just 2 nuns. E.g. at present the church has no possibility
    to help in case of domestic violence and abuse in a practical way. Priests and Vartabeds can hardly open a shelter for women.

    But what is absolutely missing is the voice of our Catholicos and the
    leading bishops of our church ! How can the people leading our church
    keep quiet, if they SEE what happens to women in our country ?

    Do they not have an order of GOD to care for ALL people sufficiently?

    DO THEY ?

    • What church? Church’ means The Body of Christ. Our body is the temple of God. And the servants of God should not be serving themselves. These people who are playing church, including the Catholicos, are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ nor His sheep, but their pockets only. Aren’t you aware what the Catholicos is doing? He cannot be bothered with these real issues, while he is having a life of his own outside of the walls of Etchmiazin.

  8. What we have to learn from the successful discussion about bus fares is
    that we NEVER MUST GIVE UP ! If we are convinced to do the right, WE HAVE TO GO ON ! Maro was more important than ALL Bus fares.

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