Fotolur photo: Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, left, giving testimony in the court.
By Karine Kalantarian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian defied possible international pressure on Armenia on Monday to advocate a death penalty for the perpetrators of the October 1999 terrorist attack on its parliament.
Testifying in the court, he described the five jailed gunmen as cold-blooded murderers who had taken orders to destroy Armenian statehood and therefore deserve no clemency.
“Let these terrorists have no hope that somebody from the outside can defend them and believe that they are the saviors of the nation,” Markarian declared at the long-running trial of Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen.
“They deserve the most severe punishment,” he added, echoing the dominant mood among Armenia’s leading politicians who want the defendants to be put to death.
The remarks followed the Armenian parliament’s decision to leave open the possibility of death sentences in the politically charged case. A new Criminal Code approved by the National Assembly late last month replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment in line with Armenia’s obligations to the Council of Europe. However, the deputies left a legal loophole that allows the courts to sentence the parliament gunmen to death.
Council of Europe officials have warned previously that they will suspend Armenia’s hard-won membership of the respected human rights organization if any of the defendants faces execution. The Italian ambassador in Yerevan, Paolo Andrea Trabalza, told Markarian last week that respecting one of the Council’s fundamental principles is essential for Armenia’s “rapid and unimpeded integration into the European family” of nations.
Markarian’s court statement suggests that he and his Republican Party (HHK) remain adamant in their demands for a death penalty “exception” for the case, a possibility which has been ruled out by the Council of Europe.
The Armenian premier took the stand a Yerevan court of first instance as a witness to the bloody drama that left the HHK’s founding leader and former prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials dead. They were gunned down only seconds after Hunanian and two other assailants burst into the parliament hall during the government’s weekly question-and-answer session.
Markarian, who headed the HHK’s parliamentary faction at the time, was one of several dozen deputies that were held hostage by the gunmen for 18 hours until the latter surrendered to the law-enforcement agencies. An amateur video shot by an undercover police cameraman inside the blood-stained chamber shortly after the massacre shows him and several other lawmakers discussing with Hunanian ways of defusing the stand-off.
But on Monday, during his two-hour cross examination by the judge, prosecutors and attorneys, Markarian was trying to avoid looking at the defendants as they watched him from behind the bars. “What happened on October 27, 1999 in the parliament hall was directed against our state, not just particular individuals,” he said.
Markarian said Hunanian and his accomplices acted in cold blood and it was obvious to him that they had been specially trained for the bloody raid. He said he continues to believe that the shock attack had been masterminded by unspecified influential forces, possibly Armenia’s “external enemies.” He did not give any names though.
Hunanian has insisted throughout the trial that the gang acted alone and did not plan to kill anybody. He dismissed Markarian’s testimonies given during and before the trial, saying that they are “full of contradictions.” Hunanian’s brother Karen, who personally shot Sarkisian, likewise alleged that the prime minister is telling “obvious lies.”
Markarian is the most high-ranking government official to have testified at the trial so far.