By Karine Kalantarian
The principal witness in state prosecutors’ murder case against the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian refused to testify in the court on Thursday, despite his earlier attempts to speak out which met visible resistance from the presiding judge and investigators.
Hovannes Harutiunian, one of the 13 defendants at the ongoing trial in the murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian, told the court in Yerevan’s Kentron district to consider only his pre-trial written deposition in which he claimed that the crime was commissioned by businessman Armen Sarkisian. “I am not going to give testimony or answer any questions here,” he said. “Accept by pre-trial testimony as a basis.”
That testimony is at the heart of the prosecution’s allegations that Sarkisian plotted to kill Naghdalian because he believed that the latter was involved in the 1999 brutal assassination of his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. The Sarkisian family denies the charges as politically motivated and hoped to disprove them by having Harutiunian cross-examined in the court.
The suspect, nicknamed “Aper,” announced on September 24 that he has “something to add” to what he had told the investigators in a series of interrogations last spring. However, his public questioning has been repeatedly and controversially delayed by judge Saro Aramian, prompting speculation that the Armenian authorities fear he might withdraw his pre-trial account.
Two other key suspects, both of them residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, have already withdrawn their testimony against Armen Sarkisian. One of them, John Harutiunian (no relation to “Aper”), confessed to murdering Naghdalian last December in return for cash paid by another defendant, Gegham Shahbazian.
In an extraordinary move, Aramian decided to cross-examine “Aper’s” wife, Gayane Melkonian, at the previous hearing on Tuesday. She said her husband told her shortly after the killing that it was the work of Sarkisian. The latter’s lawyer and supporters claimed that her unexpected appearance in the courtroom was part of the prosecutors’ pressure on “Aper.”
Hovannes Harutiunian’s refusal to speak led the court to make public the full text of his written deposition in which he admitted being an “intermediary” between” Sarkisian and Shahbazian, the man accused of hiring the alleged Karabakh hitman. Harutiunian claimed that his only role was to pass Sarkisian’s money on to Shahbazian. He cited different sums at various interrogations. The final figure mentioned by him was $75,000.
Sarkisian, for his part, told the investigators during the inquiry that he was continuously “blackmailed” by “Aper” in the weeks that followed the shooting. He is expected to elaborate on the explanation on Friday.