By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Six defendants in the 1999 assassinations trial, including three police officers who guarded the parliament building on the day it was seized by gunmen, were cleared of criminal charges on Wednesday as part of the recent general amnesty.
The policemen – Armen Gasparian, Avetik Minasian and Armen Harutiunian – were taken into custody shortly after the shootings and went on trial together with ten other defendants last February. State prosecutors have held them responsible for allowing the five-member gang led by Nairi Hunanian to smuggle Kalashnikov assault rifles into the assembly and shoot to death eight government officials, including then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian.
The officers, who insist that they are innocent, protested strongly when they were forced to sit in the dock next to the jailed gunmen. They were all released in court at the order of the presiding judge, Samvel Uzunian.
The three other men pardoned by the judge were facing less serious charges related to the parliament assault. They were released from pre-trial detention last year.
Wednesday’s court session also saw further cross-examination of Hunanian by the prosecution. The ringleader repeated his earlier claim that the gunmen had not planned to shoot at the top officials attending the parliament session on October 27, 1999 and did so only after saw “threatening movements” by Sarkisian and one of his ministers.
Hunanian said he and his henchmen “lost nerve” with the first gunshots and then started shooting indiscriminately. He has told the court before that the attack was intended to be a bloodless overthrow of the Sarkisian government which he says is responsible for Armenia’s socioeconomic woes.
However, many eyewitnesses who watched the tragedy in horror say that the assailants issued no warnings as they quietly entered the parliament hall. The opening shots were fired at Sarkisian.
Meanwhile, members of the ad hoc parliamentary commission that seeks to oversee the controversial official investigation into the shootings were on Wednesday given the first chance to visit two prisons where the remaining suspects in the case are being kept. The 12 lawmakers representing different parties are looking into the allegations that certain unauthorized persons, possibly involved in masterminding the assault, have had access to the gunmen to instruct them how to mislead the public.
One commission member, Filaret Berikian of the National Democratic Union (AZhM), said the prison administrations cooperated with the parliamentarians. “They showed us everything we asked for,” he told RFE/RL.
The deputies earlier urged judge Uzunian to order Hunanian’s relocation from the detention center of the Armenian ministry of national security, citing his allegedly long-running links with the former KGB. There has been no reaction from Uzunian yet.