Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trouble in Service: Armenian army problems stir more public debate

By Naira Hayrumyan
ArmeniaNow correspondent
Human rights | 16.09.10 | 16:17

Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan faced tough questions as he spoke during a question-answer session in parliament on Tuesday following a string of events that rocked the Armenian military lately.

Ohanyan stressed he considered attacks against the ministry unjustifiable.

Responding to a question posed by MP Stepan Safaryan from the opposition Heritage party faction, Ohanyan said that in quantitative terms there have been fewer incidents in 2010 than in comparable periods of previous years. Simply, he said, this year’s incidents have received greater publicity, eliciting a broader public response.

The army and related issues have always been considered to be a tabooed subject in Armenia, because of the closed nature of the system, lack of access to information for nongovernmental organizations and self-censorship, which has not allowed talk about shortcomings in the military “not to play into the enemy’s hands.”

However, recent deadly events in the ranks have been given publicity in recent months and have elicited a broad response among the public at large.

Artak Nazaryan, a contractual servicemen, was found dead, with a fatal wound in his mouth, in his military unit in Armenia’s Tavush province two months ago.

The army leadership said it was suicide, but Nazaryan’s family claimed murder, pointing at the presence of traces of violence on the serviceman’s body.

Last week video appeared on internet websites showing scenes of beating and humiliation of young people dressed in the Armenian army uniform by those who appeared to be their officers. The video caused a boom in online social networks and media, fueling the continuing debate about the state of human rights in the army.

Discussions about the state of the Armenian army began after the June 17-18 incident near the village of Chailu in Karabakh when an Azerbaijani commando managed to infiltrate into an Armenian-held position and shot sleeping soldiers. Four people were killed and as many wounded in that assault. A month later, a soldier went on a shooting rampage in another military unit, killing five fellow soldiers before committing suicide. Another case of one serviceman killing another was reported in August.

The underlying theme of the public debate has been a demand for Minister Ohanyan’s resignation. However, the top military brass chose to conduct internal investigations (the results of which are not yet disclosed), dismiss some of the local officers and declare that the army is under reform. Even a draft law on changing the military code that regulates relations between soldiers and officers has been submitted to parliament.

Nevertheless, it is already obvious that the topic of hazing in the army has ceased to be the army’s internal matter.

The Defense Ministry has condemned the “deliberate spread of such materials”, which it said was “aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces of Armenia” (in reference to internet videos). But it also pledged to take measures “to verify the authenticity of the material, identify the people shown in it, find the author, and punish those who used violence.”

The main opposition Armenian National Congress also slammed the vicious practices in the army, saying that “any reasonable person subjected to such brutal treatment, especially 18-19-year-olds, would easily resort to committing suicide or killings, and even would prefer to escape to the enemy.”

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