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By Karine Kalantarian

Aghamal Harutiunian, a bodyguard of President Robert Kocharian prosecuted in connection with last year’s café murder, looked set to avoid imprisonment as his 40-day trial on a manslaughter charge drew to a close on Tuesday.

The chief prosecutor in the trial, Eduard Sarikian, demanded a one-year suspended prison sentence for Harutiunian, citing several “mitigating circumstances” in a concluding speech before the district court in central Yerevan. The suggested punishment was condemned by relatives of Poghos Poghosian, an ethnic Armenian from Georgia who was found dead in the café rest room early on September 25.

Sarikian repeated the official theory that the bodyguard committed a “negligent homicide” in a one-on-one brawl with Poghosian. The prosecution has effectively dismissed some witness accounts, according to which the victim was attacked by several presidential bodyguards just minutes after Kocharian left the café with his entourage.

The presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, refused to accept a written testimony by Stephen Newton, the only eyewitness who has implicated Harutiunian in the crime. Newton, who worked for a European Union office in Armenia and was in the Aragast café on the night from September 24 to 25, has said in a statement that Harutiunian was among several presidential guards that forced Poghosian into the toilet and beat him to death.

The judge, backed by the defendant’s defense attorney Vahan Yanikian, argued that Newton’s statement was made in absentia and is “contradictory.” Yanikian demanded that his client be acquitted.

Newton, who is a British citizen, left Armenia on February 2 -- one week after the court asked the authorities to establish his identity and whereabouts for possible questioning. It is not clear whether the Briton’s contract with the EU’s TACIS program was meant to expire before his departure.

EU officials in Yerevan have declined a comment, adding to the uncertainty.

Harutiunian has said in his testimony that he himself was led into the toilet and assaulted by Poghosian. He said they both fell down to the floor after he gave the latter a “gentle shove” in self-defense. Harutiunian claimed that minutes before the incident he “reprimanded” Poghosian for greeting Kocharian in a way he found too familiar.

By most witness accounts, the 43-year-old resident of Georgia’s Armenian-populated Ninotsminda region uttered “Hello Rob!” as the Armenian president walked past his table together with famous French singer Charles Aznavour.

After hearing the prosecutor’s speech the victim’s brother, Andranik Poghosian, accused the law-enforcement agencies of covering up the murder. “This court is paying a lip service to the president of the republic. The end of this trial may herald the beginning of his resignation,” he declared before walking out of the court room with his lawyer, Ruben Sahakian, in protest.

Sahakian’s petitions to cross-examine more witnesses, including several other Kocharian bodyguards, in the court were rejected by judge Martirosian. His verdict is expected to be announced on Wednesday.
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