By Emil Danielyan
A bodyguard of President Robert Kocharian denied any responsibility for the violent death last September of a man in a Yerevan café at the start of his trial on Monday. Aghamal Harutiunian formally pleaded not guilty to the charges of involuntary manslaughter as he appeared before a Yerevan district court.
An official criminal investigation into the fatal incident has concluded that Poghos Poghosian, an ethnic Armenian from Georgia, died accidentally in a fistfight with Harutiunian after making “obscene remarks” about Kocharian, who had left the popular nightspot minutes before.
But the victim’s relatives and some human rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say that Poghosian was beaten to death by several presidential guards on the night from September 24 to 25. This version of events was on Monday effectively endorsed by a key witness in the case who sat with Poghosian at the same café table.
Stepan Nalbandian told the court that he saw his friend beaten up by several men and then pushed inside the café restroom shortly after one of them “asked very politely to have a word with Poghos.” Nalbandian said he was punched by the assailants as he tried to make his way into the toilet in a bid to stop the beating.
“I was shouting and asking them to stop beating him,” Nalbandian went on. “By the time I reached Poghos he was lying on the floor on his back. Some people then tried to help him, but it was too late.”
According to the official indictment read out by a prosecutor, the 43-year-old Poghosian died after falling over and hitting the toilet floor with the back side of his head. The prosecutors have concluded that the victim was knocked down by Harutiunian, implying that other presidential bodyguards were not involved in the brawl. Nobody else has been charged in the case.
But Nalbandian, the first eyewitness to take the stand in the trial, insisted that Poghosian was assaulted by several persons. He said he did not know any of them and does not remember seeing Harutiunian among them.
Nalbandian said one of the bodyguards told Poghosian to “shut up” after the latter uttered “Hello Rob.” The remark was made while Kocharian was leaving the café with Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer of Armenian descent. About fifteen minutes later Poghosian was approached by an unknown “young man,” according to the witness.
The first court proceedings lasted for just over an hour and were adjourned until Tuesday at the request of the victim’s brother, Andranik Poghosian, who has previously accused the investigators of obstructing justice.
The authorities’ handling of the case has also been condemned by Human Rights Watch. In a statement issued last month, the respected human rights watchdog accused Kocharian of reneging on his pledge to bring to justice all perpetrators of the crime. It said the authorities have “failed to make witnesses feel safe in coming forward.”
The official inquiry has been criticized as “flawed” by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential nationalist party of which the late Poghosian was a member.