By Karine Kalantarian
Thirteen arrested men, including the brother of an opposition leader, went on a politically sensitive trial Tuesday on charges of planning and carrying out last December’s slaying of Tigran Naghdalian, head of Armenian state television.
The first court hearing adjourned until August 5 shortly after its start due to the absence of a lawyer representing one of the defendants. The heavily guarded courtroom, the largest in Armenia, was packed with more than a hundred reporters as well as friends and relatives of Naghdalian and the man charged with masterminding his assasination: businessman Armen Sarkisian.
Dozens of other people, many of them opposition supporters, stood outside the building as the proceedings got underway.
All of the accused were seated behind the bars, with Sarkisian separated from the others. The businessman, who strongly denies any involvement in the killing, looked calm and may have been buoyed by the presence in the court of his brother Aram and several other leaders of the opposition Artarutyun alliance, including Stepan Demirchian.
Speaking to reporters, Aram Sarkisian reiterated their belief that the case is politically motivated. “The investigation has been conducted in haste and in a sloppy fashion,” he charged.
Naghdalian’s father Hovannes, for his part, said he believes that the two immediate perpetrators of the crime are sitting in the dock. One of them, a resident of Nagorno-Karabakh, allegedly fired a single fatal shot at the state TV chief as the latter left his parents’ apartment in Yerevan on December 28, 2002.
“I personally saw them in the days before the crime,” Hovannes Naghdalian told journalists. But he declined to state whether he believes Sarkisian had a hand in his 36-year-old son’s death.
The prosecutors claim that the alleged hitmen were hired by Hovannes Harutiunian, a distant relative of the Sarkisian family who was allegedly paid $75,000 by the businessman. They say he admitted his guilt.
Sarkisian, however, insists that he was “blackmailed” by Harutiunian after the shooting and paid the money because he feared for his life. His lawyers say the investigators extracted the confessions from the other suspects by torture.
Opposition supporters see a bitter irony in the fact the Naghdalian murder case is heard in the very courtroom where five other jailed individuals, who gunned down the Sarkisians’ charismatic elder brother Vazgen and seven other officials in the October 1999 raid on the Armenian parliament, have been standing trial. Relatives and supporters of the assassinated officials still suspect President Robert Kocharian of orchestrating the bloodbath and accuse the authorities of deliberately botching its investigation.
The prosecutors allege that Armen Sarkisian sought to kill Naghdalian because he believed that the latter, an ardent supporter of Kocharian, was also involved in the parliament massacre. Shortly before his death Naghdalian was accused by the Sarkisian family’s lawyers of editing the harrowing video of the five gunmen bursting into the National Assembly and spraying it with bullets.