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By Karine Kalantarian
Lawyers for the arrested brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian strongly denied on Friday government claims that he has admitted commissioning the December killing of Tigran Naghdalian, the head of Armenia’s state television and radio.

The two defense attorney’s, Robert Grigorian and Hovannes Arsenian, accused state prosecutors of manipulating the politically sensitive inquiry into the murder.

The criticism came after the state-run Armenian Public Television (APT) aired late Thursday brief excerpts from businessman Armen Sarkisian’s interrogation videotaped by the investigators this month. The footage showed Sarkisian saying that he paid one of his distant relatives, charged with organizing Naghdalian’s shooting, $75,000 last January. But he would not say for what purpose he did so.

APT and other media supporting President Robert Kocharian presented the video as proof of Sarkisian’s involvement in the widely condemned crime. But the latter’s lawyers denied this, saying that the prosecution heavily edited the videotaped testimony to leave the impression that the suspect has admitted to the charges.

According to Grigorian, Sarkisian stated in his testimony the following: “I am not a murderer, I could not have done such a thing. This is just impossible.” The lawyer argued that the material leaked by the prosecutors will prove highly damaging for the credibility of the probe.

The case against Sarkisian, who is also the brother of assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, is based on testimony given by Hovannes Harutiunian, his distant relative with reported links to the criminal underworld. The prosecutors say Harutiunian has told them that he hired late last year two hitmen from Nagorno-Karabakh with the money provided by Sarkisian. One of the Karabakh men allegedly fired the fatal shot at Naghdalian from the Russian-made TT pistol on December 29.

Sarkisian, according to his lawyers, claims that he never sought Naghdalian’s death and gave the money to Harutiunian after being “blackmailed” by the latter. The lawyers refuse to give further details of the suspect’s testimony, arguing that under Armenian law they are not allowed to do that before his trial.

Aram Sarkisian, meanwhile, denounced the televised pictures of his arrested brother as a “manipulation of facts.” He again claimed that the case is politically motivated and aims to discredit the Armenian opposition in the wake of the disputed presidential election.

“My brother has nothing to do with that crime,” he told an opposition rally in Yerevan. “They should not hope to break us. This is not going to work.”

Sarkisian and another senior member of his Hanrapetutyun party, Albert Bazeyan, again drew a link between Naghdalian’s murder and the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament which left Vazgen Sarkisian and seven other officials dead.

Kocharian, however, insisted earlier this month that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the Sarkisians’ brother.

(Photolur photo: Grigorian, left, and Arsenian speaking at a joint news conference.)
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