By Armen Zakarian
The former influential head of Armenia's prison system and a bitter opponent of President Robert Kocharian was sentenced on Friday to seven years in prison on criminal charges following a two-month trial condemned by his supporters as politically motivated and unfair.
Mushegh Saghatelian was convicted of abuse of power, fraud and an attempt to obtain "false testimony" implicating Kocharian in the 1999 assassination of eight senior officials, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, his close associate. He has repeatedly pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying that they were "fabricated" after he publicly accused Kocharian last year of orchestrating the killings.
The presiding judge, Vazgen Lalayan, read out the verdict before facing a litany of abuse from dozens of furious Saghatelian supporters that packed the courtroom. They swore and threw light objects at Lalayan as he hastily left the room.
"This is a disgraceful verdict; a verdict that defies jurisprudence," the defendant's attorney, Robert Grigorian, said afterwards. He said state prosecutors failed to prove his client's guilt on all counts.
Most of the charges leveled against Saghatelian center on his widely reported ill-treatment of prisoners and opponents of successive governments in which the late Sarkisian held senior posts. He is accused, in particular, of having participated in the infamous 1995 beating of some two dozen senior police officers suspected of plotting a coup d'etat. Saghatelian and the murdered prime minister are said to have been among top security officials who personally beat them at an interior ministry compound in Yerevan.
Friday's court ruling presented the former prison chief's involvement in the violence as a proven fact but makes no mention of other perpetrators. It also found him guilty of torturing several opposition leaders arrested in the wake of the fraudulent presidential elections of September 1996. One of the victims, Gagik Mkrtchian, is now the editor of the pro-Kocharian daily "Hayots Ashkhar," while several others are members of the Armenian parliament. They testified in the court as witnesses.
Lalayan endorsed prosecutors' claim that Saghatelian had beaten up several prison inmates captured after killing a prison guard as they escaped from detention. One of the prisoners subsequently died of the injuries.
The judge also convicted Saghatelian of submitting a "faked" university diploma that allowed him to get a job in the interior ministry in 1992 and promising a lavish kickback to a police informant in exchange for testimony against Kocharian.
Saghatelian was arrested last fall after openly stating his belief that Kocharian and his most influential ally, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, were behind the October 1999 terrorist attack on the parliament. Some human rights activists say he would not have been prosecuted for his alleged human rights abuses had he not voiced the allegations.
The seven-year prison term appeared to come as a surprise for Saghatelian's relatives and allies who hoped that his recent reelection to the governing board of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans signaled his imminent release. Had Saghatelian been sentenced to up to five years imprisonment, he would have walked free under a general amnesty declared by parliament last year.
Aram Sarkisian, the late premier's brother and himself a former prime minister, said Saghatelian's lawyer will appeal the ruling. Sarkisian, who leads the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party, denounced the trial, saying that judge Lalayan "executed the authorities' orders." "Lalayan could have refused to take up the case. He looked so scared. I feel sorry for him," Sarkisian said.