YEREVAN—Hundreds of women marched on the General Prosecutor’s Office in downtown Yerevan on Friday to protest the release on bail of former director of the Republican Institute of Reproductive Health, Dr. Razmik Abrahamyan. Abrahamyan is one of five suspects allegedly involved in a criminal conspiracy to place Armenian children for international adoption under false pretenses. The announcement, in November, of investigations into similar cases going back decades by both the National Security Service (NSS) and the Armenian National Police Service, sent shockwaves through Armenian society, with the scandal even making headlines in the international press.
The women, most of whom have lost their children during delivery under the care of Dr. Abrahamyan, accuse the disgraced gynecologist of deceiving them about the fate of their newborns. According to prosecutors, Dr. Abrahamyan and his co-conspirators had routinely profited from placing healthy children for international adoption after telling the families that they had either died or been sent to special needs facilities. This news raised the hopes among some of the protesting mothers that their children may indeed be alive.
One of the protesters, Anna Petrosyan, told Armenian Public Radio that she had given birth to premature twins, who had been declared healthy. She was later shocked to learn from the clinic staff that both had died a mere six days after delivery. Petrosyan told reporters she was denied access to their bodies by Dr. Abrahamyan in order to “avoid mental distress.” She was told that the bodies had already been transferred to an autopsy center, but once there, staff informed her that they do not perform autopsies on children under five years of age.
“Maternal instincts never lie,” she told reporters while holding back tears. “Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say, but every year, on their birthday, I see them in a dream telling me ‘Mom, please come find us.”‘
According to the Hague Convention on Children’s Rights figures, 550 Armenian children have been adopted internationally (122 of which had mental or physical disabilities between 2008 and 2019, while 495 children were adopted locally—only six of which had disabilities of any kind). However, the police investigated only three cases of child trafficking during that period.
Robin Sizemore, executive director at the US-based international adoption agency, Hopscotch— which has been indirectly linked to the ongoing investigation—questions how such an organized racket could take place undetected over such a long period. “Do you sign relinquishment and consent to adoption documents before you leave the hospital, under the impression that your child has died? Never,” she wrote to the Armenian Weekly in a November email interview. “You simply go home and decide to tell your family and neighbors you lost the baby because the pain of leaving a child for your own personal reasons and the guilt of choosing to do so is so unbearable. You become complicit in this story.” Sizemore believes that most children who wind up in the state care system do so in this way.
It remains unclear whether the children of the protesting women were all indeed victims of child trafficking or died as a result of complications in childbirth or other fates. Nonetheless, reports of children being immediately rushed away by medical staff after birth, under the guise of preventing trauma for the mother are quite common in Armenia. According to a 2005 study on maternity care in the former Soviet Union in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, it was standard practice to immediately separate mother and child at birth across the USSR, a trend eventually inherited by the maternity care wards of its successor states.
Similar cases were also at the root of another scandal which made international headlines in 2015. New Zealander Samuel Forrest was shocked when his Armenian wife agreed to give up their son—who was revealed to have Down Syndrome at birth—to adoption. His wife later recounted that she was still in a fragile mental state having just given birth when the medical staff informed her of her newborn’s condition. She said they immediately took her son Leo away and pressured her into agreeing to adoption, insisting that she would never be able to take care of him. She would only get to hold her son for the first time three weeks after his birth.
A 2012 government report confirmed that such incidents are a common occurrence in delivery wards across Armenia, with medical staff taking an active role in dissuading parents from making any contact with disabled or deceased infants. The Armenian Weekly has previously reported on first-hand accounts by adoptive parents in the United States of birth parents expressing shock at the knowledge that their children were alive.
The Yerevan District Court barred investigators from placing Abrahamyan in pre-trial detention, while the other four suspects were released on bail in December. All five have denied the charges against them.
Incidentally, Abrahamyan was involved in an unrelated corruption scandal in March of 2019, accused of bribing Deputy Health Minister Arsen Davtyan. However, he managed to escape prosecution; Davtyan, however, wasn’t as lucky, after being promptly arrested in his office.
Prosecutors are currently appealing the court’s decision to release Abrahamyan as well as the other four suspects.
This is an ongoing investigation.