A fatal child-custody fight has revived calls in Armenia for an effective law against domestic violence. Women’s rights advocates argue that both the justice and law enforcement system in this predominantly patriarchal, South Caucasus country still fail to address domestic violence as an actual crime.
On July 8, 31-year-old unemployed Yerevan resident Vladik Martirosian came to his ex-wife and her family with an axe and a mission – to regain custody of his 18-month-old son. He let his axe do the talking, killing his former mother-in-law, 64-year-old Karine Mansurian, and nearly slaying his former spouse, Taguhi Mansurian, 37, and her elderly father, Vachagan Mansurian, as well.
Martirosian, now in custody, has admitted to the crimes, which his toddler son witnessed. A trial date has not been announced.
But whether Martirosian will face the full measure of the law remains to be seen.
Martirosian was sentenced in April to six months in prison for physically abusing his ex-wife, but the decision to implement a prison sentence rested with the judge, Nelli Baghdasarian, who decided against it.
Human rights activists, who took to the streets in Yerevan on July 13 to demand passage of a law to prevent domestic violence, claim that Armenian law enforcement does not treat such cases seriously. Consequently, they charge, the violence has not decreased.
Police recorded the murders of four women over 2015-2016, and 544 cases of domestic violence – roughly a 35-percent increase in the latter since 2014.
“Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve witnessed more violent treatment [of women] and the variety of the tools used for murder keeps widening – a knife, an axe, a rifle, beating with blunt instruments and torturing with a hot iron,” charged Zaruhi Hovhannissian, coordinator of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women, a collection of seven non-governmental organizations.
Police Colonel Nelly Durian, head of the national police’s Department for Juvenile Rights and Combating Domestic Violence, maintains, though, that her department’s existence indicates that the police take domestic abuse seriously, even if a law to prevent domestic violence does not exist.
“The police say no to abuse and apply, use and put into practice all tools provided by the law,” she asserted at a July 11 conference in Yerevan.
But those tools, in reality, are not always used, noted Hovhannissian.
“The attitude of the law enforcement system toward women is … indifferent,” she commented. “They are encouraged to keep silent, to put up [with the abuse] and get back together with their husbands.”
Most of the men accused of murdering “at least 30” women in domestic disputes between 2010 and 2015 have not been sentenced or imprisoned, according to a 2016 report on domestic violence prepared by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women. [The Coalition received funding for this initiative from the Open Society Foundation Armenia that operates as part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the Soros network].
The report, “Femicide in Armenia: A Silent Epidemic,” states that its tally of 30 murders is “incomplete” since the number does not reflect “cases wrongly labeled as suicide or an accident.”
Punishments for domestic violence tend to be mild, the report found.
In 2015, for instance, a court in the northern town of Vanadzor fined a man only 150,000 drams ($315) for beating his wife, who claimed that she had been subjected to 16 years of abuse. The judge cited the couple’s children and the husband’s reportedly good reputation as the reasons for not taking stronger measures.
In another instance, in the town of Ararat, about 66 kilometers (41 miles) southeast of Yerevan, a man was sentenced in 2015 to only three years and eight months in prison for having stabbed his wife to death in front of their two daughters. Armenia’s criminal code allows a life sentence for murder.
The court justified the lighter sentence by claiming that the man had been jealous at the time of the attack and not in “a sober state of mind.”
In 2013, parliament rejected a draft law that would have imposed harsher punishments on perpetrators of domestic violence.
The legislation would not only establish “the importance” of addressing domestic violence, but provide mechanisms “for different state systems to come up with preventive measures” against the murder of women by their husbands, said Lara Aharonian, director of the Women's Resource Center, the country’s first women’s rights group.
The law also would force courts to approach such cases seriously and require judges to take “additional training” so that they “treat these cases properly,” she added.
All discussion of the law has stopped since parliament’s veto, according to Aharonian. Officials and MPs who worked on the draft law could not be reached for comment.
Yet rights advocates acknowledge that a legal remedy alone is insufficient.
Rather, the problem lies in Armenian society itself.
“[S]ociety blames the victim and tries to justify the abuser because since childhood we have gotten used to protecting men in this patriarchal society,” elaborated Aharonian. “[M]en cannot be wrong in front of a woman.”
Following the Yerevan axe attack, many men and women on Facebook said that they themselves would kill anyone who prevented them from seeing their child, while others blamed the ex-wife because she “allowed [the attack] to happen.” Still others claimed that the ex-mother-in-law had deserved to die for interfering “in other people’s business.”
Taguhi Mansurian and her mother had complained to police, when Martirosian visited the Mansurians earlier in the day on July 8, and beat both women. He later returned with an axe.
Civil society campaigns may have led more Armenian women to speak out about abuse, but, still, more needs to be done, commented Hovhannissian and Aharonian.
Recollecting the violence his daughter has endured from her ex-husband, Vachagan Mansurian, who remains in the hospital, can only agree.
“When people go participate in some protest, [the police] arrest them and imprison them for three months,” he told RFE/RL. “They set penalties and what not, but a terrorist like that, who terrorized my whole family, got away with nothing.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Armenia and editor of MediaLab.am.