Hungry for Justice: Convicted soldier says he has “no other way” but hunger strike

In a basement cell with a barred and screened window where heavy air smothers breathing, 19-year old prisoner Razmik Sargsyan is in his 28th day of a hunger strike to protest the sentence for a crime he now says he had no part in.

In April of last year, following five days of interrogation during which the teenager says he was tortured, Sargsyan, a conscript in the Armenian army confessed to the murder of two fellow soldiers in Karabakh in December of 2003. Two other soldiers were also convicted based on Sargsyan’s confession.

Each was sentenced to 15 years.

Attorneys and family members of all the convicted soldiers have maintained that Sargsyan and the others were scapegoats in a double murder that, they say, leads to unit commander Ivan Grigoryan. Grigoryan was not called to testify in the case, due, in part, to his status as a Karabakh war hero. (Also read previous ArmeniaNow reports: With Prejudice?, Army on Trial and Death Over Dishonor?.)

The case is one of several examples of unsatisfactory conditions within the Armenian Army, where soldiers are routinely beaten (the murder victims are believed to have been tortured, then murdered), often with the approval or out right command of superior officers.

It is also a case that has drawn attention from human rights agencies and Non Governmental Organizations who say that Sargsyan is just another victim of bottom-to-top corruption that prevails in the military.

Sargsyan's case is under appeal, but a prison doctor has determined that his health is too bad for him to attend the hearings.

According to his attorney, Zaruhi Postanjyan, Sargsyan cannot walk, and suffers severe kidney problems that, the attorney says, are the result of numerous beatings. The apparent kidney damage makes a hunger strike particularly dangerous for the boy. And in fact his conditioned dramatically deteriorated within two weeks of the strike.

Members of an NGO observation group making a public supervision in prisons, consider his health condition as hard. The group was denied a request to view Sargsyan’s medical records by head of the Nubarashen prison, Ara Sargsyan.

Although press secretary of the Ministry of Justice Ara Saghatelyan insists they would get the information in case a proper request was presented the lawyers insist the two written mediations in that regard have been rejected.

On the fifth day of his strike, Sargsyan announced it to the Court of Appeals. Judge Mher Arghmanyan replied: “Only guilty people do things like hunger strikes . . .”

On a visit to the Nubarashen prison, ArmeniaNow’s reporter found the boy pale, gaunt and barely capable of speaking. He is demanding that those who he says tortured him be charged with their crimes, and that the Military Prosecutor be dismissed from the case, and a civilian prosecutor from the Prosecutor General’s Office be assigned.

“I have been innocently sentenced for 15 years, and evidence has been extorted by beatings,” he told ArmeniaNow “How can I go out of the hunger strike? I have no other way.”

“Razmik Sargsyan made this ultimate step for he does not know what steps to take to prove his innocence and to bring the real criminals to responsibility,” Postanjyan says. “Besides the fact the real criminals are free they have involved also innocent people into the case.”

Neither Musa Serobyan nor Araik Zalyan, the other soldiers, confessed to the same charges raised against Sargsyan.

Postanjayan says the Military Prosecutor’s Office made its case solely on Sargsyan’s allegedly-extorted testimony. She describes her client as a sensitive boy, liable to yield to pressure.

“They purposefully chose Razmik, for he is more vulnerable, writes poems and loves music, so he would not stand the beatings. And indeed he did not. The investigator had hanged him up and threatened to rape him with a stick… Razmik has testified to all these in the court of the first instance,” says the lawyer.

During the year and a half of their imprisonment all the three prisoners have declared hunger strikes at different times. The longest was Zalyan’s, lasting 90 days.

Due to his already poor health, Sargsyan’s hold out appears more dramatic.

Following a recent visit to the prison, Torgom Sargsyan said his son could not walk and “his face was totally swollen, his hands were shaking, he could hardly move his lips. He has had acute kidney attacks again; he urinates blood.

“They took my child to the army for two years, and it turned into 15 . . .”

Read next week’s ArmeniaNow for an update on the appeals court hearings.