By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s largest opposition alliance on Monday condemned as politically motivated the weekend arrest of one of its leaders’ brother on charges of involvement in the killing of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian.
Businessman Armen Sarkisian, the younger brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian, was taken into custody late Saturday in the latest in a series of arrests connected with Naghdalian’s death last December. Nine persons, including the alleged perpetrator of the murder, are now in jail pending investigation.
The businessman is also the brother of Vazgen Sarkisian, the charismatic former prime minister assassinated in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. State prosecutors accuse him of masterminding the crime. In a pre-trial testimony publicized by the state-run Armenian Public Television on Monday, one of the top suspects claimed that Sarkisian paid him $50,000 for planning and carrying out the murder.
The authorities seem to have prepared ground for his arrest in the previous days by stressing through their loyal media the fact that two of the suspects are distant relatives of the Sarkisian family.
Armen Sarkisian’s lawyer, Robert Grigorian, protested against the arrest on Monday, saying that the investigators lack the evidence to indict his client. Aram Sarkisian and his opposition allies, for their part, rejected the charges as “fabricated,” alleging that they are part of President Robert Kocharian’s efforts to cling to power after this month’s disputed presidential election.
“We declare that we will achieve the ouster of the forces that have usurped power and the restoration of constitutional order,” the oppositionists making up the newly established Artarutyun (Justice) alliance said in a statement. “Consistent pressure on the regime will continue on an even larger scale.”
The arrest was also denounced by the suspect’s mother Greta and female relatives of other officials gunned down in the 1999 massacre as they demonstrated outside Kocharian’s official residence. “This is a political order aimed at silencing the opposition,” Greta Sarkisian said. “They are especially keen to silence Aram.”
She said she will continue the protests on a daily basis until her son is set free.
News of the first arrests in the Naghdalian inquiry was announced by the authorities late on March 5, shortly after the end of voting in the presidential run-off and the publication of first official figures giving Kocharian a huge lead over his challenger Stepan Demirchian.
Among those arrested was John Harutiunian, a resident of Nagorno-Karabakh who is reportedly charged with personally shooting Naghdalian on December 28. Naghdalian’s brother Samvel told RFE/RL earlier this month that he and his father were brought face to face with the man and remember seeing him in and around their Yerevan home shortly before the killing.
The Sarkisian family and the opposition, meanwhile, link Naghdalian’s death to an alleged high-level cover-up of the 1999 parliament shootings. “We have reason to suggest that by arresting Armen Sarkisian the authorities are offering more guarantees to the perpetrators of the October 27 terrorist act,” the Artarutyun statement said.
The Sarkisian family’s Russian lawyer, Oleg Yunoshev, charged last January that Naghdalian had been “involved” in the parliament massacre and could have exposed it masterminds. He claimed that Naghdalian was gunned down shortly after allegations that the harrowing video of five armed men bursting into the parliament hall was secretly edited by state television before it was made available to investigators. The allegations were publicly shrugged off by Kocharian.
“Naghdalian was an important witness, and we were impatiently awaiting his court testimony,” said Rimma Demirchian, the widow of parliament speaker Karen Demirchian also assassinated by the parliament gunmen.
Armen Sarkisian owns several businesses in his native town of Ararat and other parts of Armenia. Sarkisian’s name was already in the news last May when the United States imposed sanctions on him, accusing him of having ties with an Armenian biochemical company that sold sensitive equipment to neighboring Iran. Sarkisian strongly denied at the time any connection with the company called Lizin.