By Armen Zakarian and Karine Kalantarian
The opposition Artarutyun alliance put forward on Thursday legal amendments that would deny the five perpetrators of the 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament, widely expected to get life imprisonment, the right to eventual parole.
Meanwhile, the protracted trial of the gunmen entered its final phase, with state prosecutors beginning their concluding speeches in the court.
Artarutyun’s initiative comes after its leaders’ failure to leave a loophole in Armenia’s new criminal code that would allow death sentences against ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen. The code fully and unconditionally abolished the death penalty in times of peace. It also stipulates that all life prisoners will be eligible for parole after spending at least 20 years in jail.
The opposition bloc wants to make sure that those who assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials in the shock October 1999 raid spend the rest of their lives in prison. One of its top lawmakers, Victor Dallakian, called for an emergency session of the National Assembly to debate and pass corresponding amendments to the code.
“The October 27 criminals must be subjected to strict punishment,” Dallakian said. “Those political forces that will not support this initiative will be considered to be sponsoring the terrorists.”
The opposition led by Demirchian’s son Stepan has already leveled such accusations against President Robert Kocharian. In a statement read out to thousands of opposition supporters last week, Artarutyun charged that Kocharian had a role in the parliament killings and held on to power thanks to them.
The statement was triggered by the course of the Hunanian gang’s ongoing trial, the presiding judge of which has rejected many petitions made by lawyers of the Sarkisian and Demirchian families in recent months. They were particularly furious with his decision last August not to question more than a hundred witnesses of the massacre.
One of the trial prosecutors, Gagik Avetisian, insisted on Thursday that the pre-trial investigation and court proceedings, which began in February 2001, have followed the due process of law. Avetisian said the investigators have done their best to clear up all circumstances of the unprecedented crime as he started making the prosecution’s case.
He assured the victims’ relatives that the law-enforcement authorities continue to believe that the armed group acted on the orders of more powerful forces. He pointed to a separate ongoing inquiry aimed at identifying and tracking down the presumed masterminds. But that probe has not yet yielded any results, prompting allegations that it is a smokescreen for covering up the crime.
Those claims were reiterated by Ashot Sargsian, the Demirchian family’s attorney who walked out of the trial last month in protest. But he was back in the courtroom on Thursday, telling RFE/RL that he will attend the trial’s concluding stage which involves speeches by prosecutors and other parties.
Hunanian, who insists that he acted alone, is expected to deliver a lengthy monologue. At the previous court session on Tuesday, Hunanian publicized a September 20 letter to Kocharian in which he demanded that the Armenian president ensure his acquittal, claiming that the parliament shootings helped the latter stay in power and that most Armenians approve the gunmen’s actions.
“On the one hand, you were my and others’ guarantor before the people,” he wrote. “On the other hand, you had my support and protection.”
Hunanian went on to warn that failure to protect him against “false accusations” could lead to Kocharian’s downfall. “That foundation may crumble at any moment,” he said ambiguously. “And you may find yourself under the rubble.”
Hunanian further demanded that Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the former chief of the presidential staff, Aleksan Harutiunian, be summoned to the court for questioning. The petition was rejected by judge Samvel Uzunian.
Kocharian’s political opponents are bound to seize on Hunanian’s claims. The Demirchian and Sarkisian lawyers have long demanded that the authorities publicize details of Kocharian’s tete-a-tete negotiations with Hunanian on the night from October 27 to 28, 1999.
The negotiations resulted in the gunmen’s surrender the next morning. Kocharian only briefly mentioned them in his pre-trial written testimony.