Police Investigating Death of Former Armenian Police Chief in March 1 Clashes

Hayk Harutiunian pictured in Yerevan, April 16, 2003 (Photo credit: Photolur)

YEREVAN—General Hayk Harutiunian, a former Chief of the Armenian National Police Department, was found dead in his vacation home on Monday night. The now-former head of the Armenian Police had been involved in the deadly post-electoral confrontation that cost the lives of eight protesters and two security officers on March 1, 2008. Police are currently investigating the case as an apparent suicide, but the circumstances, as well as the fact that Harutiunian was expected to testify in the ongoing trial of former-president Robert Kocharyan and ex-Army Chief of Staff Yuri Khachaturov have fueled media speculation.

According to a Police spokesperson, Harutiunian was found dead in his vacation home in Bjni, a small resort-town on the banks of the Hrazdan River less than 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the Armenian capital. Officials say a spent nine-millimeter casing and a standard-issue Makarov pistol were also found next to the body. Harutiunian was 63 years old. An investigation has been opened under Article 11 of the Criminal Code which covers suicide. 

Police have also investigated claims by some witnesses that Harutiunian had been heavily drinking in the hours leading up to his death. Investigators have also examined allegations made by two Armenian newspapers citing anonymous witnesses as having heard Harutiunian confess that he was under pressure from authorities to deliver a false testimony against “former comrades” Kocharyan and Khachaturov. According to one of these sources, the General’s last words were: “I am a man of honor, a General. My dignity as a General has been soiled. I am humiliated. Now my life is shot to hell.”

However, Investigative Committee Spokeswoman Naira Harutunyan responded to the allegations made by the online news portals Hayeli.am and Armlur.am that of all the witnesses interviewed, none had made such claims to investigators. “The news published on Hayeli.am does not correspond to reality. We urge the media to refrain from publishing inaccurate information.” Harutunyan later clarified that the previous statement was obviously not meant to be interpreted as law enforcement putting any sort of pressure on media, going on to reaffirm her agency’s continued respect for the constitutionally-sanctioned freedom of the press. The statement was accompanied by a smiley face emoji. 

Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian, who is in charge of the investigation into the 2008 killings also denied having put any pressure on Harutiunian. “The responsibilities of prosecutor-general do not allow for such things in either the legal and moral sense” he told reporters. The chief prosecutor also ruled out any possibility that the Special Investigative Service (SIS), the main body investigating the case, would have been responsible either.

Incidentally, Hayeli.am’s founder, owner and Editor-in-Chief Angela Tovmasyan is the sister of Constitutional Court President, Hrayr Tovmasyan. 

Investigators have also reviewed footage from the security cameras at the entrance of the General’s villa, and found no evidence of anyone entering the property save for the two people already inside. 

General Hayk Harutiunian has held a number of appointed positions within Armenia’s security services for the better part of his decades-long career. He served as Minister of Internal Affairs from 1999 to 2003 and Chief of Police from 2003 to 2008. That’s where he was tasked with breaking up pro-opposition protests in the wake of the controversial 2008 presidential election. 

However, he was not arrested last year along with Kocharyan and Khachaturov in connection to the deadly March 1 crackdown. But he was considered a key witness in the subsequent trial. In a testimony provided during the preliminary trial last year, Harutiunian explained his involvement in the tragic events of April and March 2008. According to his claim, he had never intended to violently break up the protest camp at Liberty Square, but was simply attempting to investigate credible reports from the National Security Service that the protesters were stockpiling arms. In his recollection of events, violence broke out after the demonstrators refused to allow police into the camp, at which point he transferred command of the police operation to his deputy Armen Yeritsyan. Throughout the testimony, Harutiunian insisted that he had ordered his unarmed police units to show restraint, had not cooperated with the military units sent into the city and was unaware of any order by President Kocharyan to use force against demonstrators. 

While this testimony largely echoes comments made by Kocharyan in court, some key points have been disputed by multiple witness testimony. Harutiunian was unable to give a straight answer when a prosecutor asked why additional police units had cordoned off Liberty Square in order to catch escaping demonstrators if the intention was to simply check the camp for weapons. Additionally, much video evidence and witness testimony show that Army personnel were present in the city as early as late February and clearly cooperating with police well before they were officially called in.

Following his retirement from the police force in May 2008, he continued to serve in both the Kocharyan and Sargsyan administrations. However, he has not held a government post since being dismissed as Head of Correctional Facilities in 2014. 

The Investigative Committee treating the case as a suicide did little to stem the proliferation of rumors and conspiracy theories, mostly fueled by murky online news platforms with little in the form of media credibility, that Harutiunian’s death was either a politically-motivated murder or at the very least, the result of direct pressure to testify in a particular manner.

In any case, the death of an important figure in the most high-profile trial in Armenia’s independent has become a sensation in its own right. As Emil Sanamyan, an analyst at the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California, tweeted: “The big issue is that [the] investigation into 10 deaths is now beginning to generate its own list of victims.”

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

2 Comments

  1. All I can say is this: Pashinyan has done a good job eliminating people left and right.
    This guy is full of REVENGE. And this is dangerous for Armenia, sooner or later someone will rise up and slap Pashinyan with a strong worded ENOUGH.

    • Preston Bagrationi is right: And, it was a bad omen, when Pashinyan approved the legal actions against Kocharyan. It’s one thing about going after corruption, which is understandable, but this thing against Kocharyan appears to be borne from revenge.

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