On March 26, a video testimony was published as part of a report by local news site Epress.am. The video features Asya Khachatryan, a 19-year-old girl from Yerevan, describing the three-day, police-led harassment she experienced at the beginning of February in Artsakh’s capital city, Stepanakert. In the days since it was published, Khachatryan’s testimony has gone viral across local media, sparking a variety of responses, as it touches on a number of sensitive themes affecting Armenian society, including gender profiling, civil rights injustices, police brutality, and the state of Armenia-Artsakh relations.
Summary of Khachatryan’s Testimony
Khachatryan, who had moved to Stepanakert at the beginning of 2018 to live and work there, says she was leaving work around midnight on Feb. 1, when she was first approached by local police officers, who began questioning her and instructed her to hand over documents, including her passport. She refused to concede her passport without proper cause, and when she asked officers what she had done wrong, they responded that it was unusual to see a girl out that late at night, and that, as Artsakh is a war-zone—whenever they see an unfamiliar face, they need to verify that person.
Her interactions with the police over the following days escalated after this initial encounter. The next day, she was detained at the police station after being approached by officers outside a Tashir Pizza and again refusing to hand over her passport. Khachatryan said she tried numerous times to emphasize her Armenian citizenship to the officers, who responded, “This is not your Armenia.”
The next day at 1 a.m., officers came to her apartment, which she shared with a female friend, and demanded entry, despite having no warrant or right to search. Upon entering the girls’ apartment, the officers conducted an invasive survey of the area, which included them inspecting her bathroom and refrigerator. Khachatryan said the officers also made snide remarks about her lifestyle, allegedly asking her whether she smoked and commenting, on the empty beer bottles in her kitchen, that “girls shouldn’t drink beer.”
Khachatryan and her roommate were then taken to the police department, where she was subjected to questioning. She demanded her right to to a phone call and was denied, at which point she refused to answer any more questions without a lawyer. This angered the officer detaining her and a physical altercation ensued, in which she was aggressively handled and slapped. She says her roommate, in a separate room, was also hit over the head and rendered unconscious.
Khachatryan says the officers were unable, throughout the course of her detention, to provide a legitimate explanation for why she was being detained, in the end stating, “Here [in Artsakh] we don’t have girls with blue hair going around smoking and walking alone at night… Imagine, we’re a warring country, we thought you might be a spy.”
After returning to Yerevan, Khachatryan made contact with Artsakh Ombudsman, Ruben Melikyan. She tells Epress.am in her testimony that after listening to her story, Melikyan said he would take punitive measures, but allegedly preferred to do so through routes which were not “official.” Khachatryan says Melikyan offered to privately chastise the policemen who detained and harassed her.
Hours after the Epress.am article went live, Melikyan’s office published a statement to social media indicating the Ombudsman had initiated the process for investigating Khachatryan’s story and that if her statements proved truthful, “then the behavior of the Artsakh Republic Police Force is unacceptable and they should be held responsible to the fullest extent envisaged by law.”
The statement also disputed Khachatryan’s account, arguing her description of the phone call with Melikyan as “only partially accurate” and that “Mr. Melikyan clearly explained to Ms. Khachatryan all the effective legal remedies available. Furthermore, he has stated that he stands ready to pursue them all.” On March 28, the Ombudsman’s office published another statement indicating it had already begun the process of retrieving answers from local Artsakh law enforcement about Khachatryan’s story.
As of 9:53 p.m. on March 28, 2018: Following the publication of this review, an abridged interview with the spokesperson for the Republic of Artsakh, David Babayan, was released on the news site 168.am, confirming that an official investigation into Khachatryan’s case had already begun, issued directly by President Bako Sahakyan. He also stated that speculations as to the abnormal state of “Karabagh-Armenia” relations were counterproductive and inaccurate.
Differing Perspectives in the Press
Several articles have appeared in local press outlets and on social media from members of the community taking stances on the controversy and debating its various implications.
Garbis Pashoyan, a journalist at Hraparak.am, writes that the situation is a bad sign for relations between Armenia and Artsakh. “They hit and discriminate against an Armenian girl in Artsakh and emphasize the fact that she is Armenian,” he argues, “but meanwhile, Artsakh is standing because of taxes paid by Asya Khachatryan… The sign ‘Free Artsakh Welcomes You’ stands in the soil because that soil is mixed with blood,” writes Pashoyan, “And that is Armenian blood.”
Political Analyst Stepan Danielyan writes on his Facebook page that this issue started the day Armenia declared itself independent from Artsakh—a political move that according to him, has turned Artsakh into “a curse and legal black hole for Armenia, which is used during illegal ‘elections’ as an ideological and physical baton over Armenia.”
Others, like Tatul Hakobyan, the coordinator and editor of the Ani Research Center, suggest the issue is not about Armenia-Artsakh relations. Instead, it’s about broader civil liberties’ violations in the region, something Armenia too struggles with immensely. Anna Pambukhchyan of “Conscious Citizens Association” also argues this is a case of human rights and democracy in Artsakh. A foundation for democracy in Artsakh is more important there than anywhere else, she says, because it actually helps their position in the conflict with Azerbaijan (known for its human rights violations). Meanwhile, on social media platforms, many individuals and grass roots womens’ organizations believe that Khachatryan’s case exemplifies female discrimination and abuse in the region, and the territorial politics distract from taking this issue more seriously.