By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
Armenia’s former interior minister, Vano Siradeghian, lost his seat in parliament on Monday after nineteen months on the run from what he and his supporters say is a politically motivated prosecution on murder charges.
Siradeghian was stripped of his parliamentary mandate by fellow lawmakers for his failure to attend the sessions of the National Assembly since April 2000 when he fled Armenia to avoid arrest. The deputies voted by 67 to 8 to approve a motion to that effect put by the parliament committee on legal affairs.
The committee has found the ex-minister’s absence “unjustified.” Its first attempt to end his formal membership of the parliament failed on October 10 when it won the backing of only 36 of the 131 deputies voting in a secret ballot.
The move is seen as a largely symbolic gesture meant to add more legitimacy to the widely publicized case against Siradeghian. Under Armenian law, the Central Election Commission now has to formally revoke his parliamentary mandate and call a fresh election in his Noyemberian constituency in northern Armenia within the next five days.
Analysts believe the sudden change in the deputies’ opinion came after intense lobbying and pressure from President Robert Kocharian’s administration. They say the fact that Monday’s vote was open was also important. Many deputies previously opposed to Siradeghian’s ouster fell in line, apparently taking account of public opinion, which is firmly set against him.
“I don’t care if a parliament vote is open or secret,” said deputy speaker Tigran Torosian, who voted for the measure. “But as the results of today’s vote show, some people do.”
“If there had been another secret ballot, Siradeghian would not have lost his mandate,” said Aramayis Barseghian, an outspoken lawmaker from the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK). Barseghian said he boycotted the vote to protest the “political order” issued by the authorities.
Siradeghian went on trial in September 1999 on charges of ordering a string of contract killings while in power from 1992-96. State prosecutors claim that he set up a death squad in 1992 to eliminate and terrorize opponents of the regime. In July 2000, two members of the alleged gang were sentenced to death, while seven others got jail terms ranging from 4 to 11 years. A month later, eleven former officers of Armenian interior troops were given lengthy sentences after a Yerevan court convicted them of murdering two men in 1995. The prosecutors say the killings were ordered by Siradeghian.
The once powerful minister close to former president Levon Ter-Petrossian has vehemently denied the charges. Siradeghian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party say he is a victim of a political vendetta waged by the current authorities. A senior member of the HHSh, Andranik Hovakimian, condemned the parliament’s decision. “I am confident that the executive branch put pressure on all deputies,” he told RFE/RL. “It again became evident that the case against Vano Siradeghian has a political subtext.”