By Hrach Melkumian
In a move that will speed up the protracted trial of five men who seized Armenia’s parliament in October 1999, a court in Yerevan decided on Monday to stop hearing witnesses initially called up by the prosecution.
The presiding judge, Samvel Uzunian, ruled that there is no need to cross-examine the remaining 101 eyewitnesses despite vehement protests from some relatives of the eight senior officials killed in the attack. The decision was made at the request of state prosecutors who argue that the 29 other individuals already questioned in the court have given sufficient weight to their case against ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen.
“It will not reflect negatively on the depth and objectivity of the proceedings,” said one of the prosecutors, Gagik Avetisian. “On the contrary, it will facilitate them.”
However, the victims’ relatives and their attorneys claimed the opposite, renewing their allegations of a high-level cover-up of the parliament massacre. “I am furious; the decision was politically motivated,” said Anahit Bakhshian, the wife of Yuri Bakhshian, one of the two assassinated vice-speakers of the National Assembly. “Everything is being done to hide the truth.”
Aram Sarkisian, an opposition leader and brother of slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, said the witnesses could have given “valuable testimony” in the court. “It is obvious that the trial is managed by the authorities,” he charged.
But according to another prosecutor, Koryun Piloyan, their testimony is more relevant to the continuing separate investigation into possible masterminds of the bloodbath. Still, the lawyer for the family of the late speaker Karen Demirchian, Ashot Sargsian, countered that the prosecutors had themselves decided before the trial that the witnesses in question must take the stand.
Uzunian’s controversial decision, expected for the past several weeks, came amid speculation that the authorities would like to wrap up the trial, which got underway in February 2001, by the end of this year. The court hearings were already suspended from January through June ostensibly due to the judge’s illness. But critics linked the delay to the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003, saying that President Robert Kocharian and his allies wanted to avoid negative publicity brought by the case.
Lawyers representing the victims’ families as well as the defendants will still be allowed to ask Uzunian to invite witnesses of their choice. Hunanian already made it clear on Monday that he would like to ask some questions to Aleksan Harutiunian, a former Kocharian wide who was at one point charged with complicity in the parliament shootings.
Harutiunian, who now runs Armenia’s state television and radio, was cleared of the charges in May 2000 after spending several months in detention.