By Karine Kalantarian
Prosecutors demanded on Wednesday a 15-year prison sentence for the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian charged with organizing last December’s murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian, saying that they have proven his guilt during his three-month trial.
In their concluding speech, they also demanded the same punishment for a Nagorno-Karabakh man who confessed to shooting Naghdalian dead and 11 years another man who allegedly hired him. Another defendant, whose written pre-trial testimony is at the heart of the controversial case against businessman Armen Sarkisian, should be sentenced to seven years in prison for cooperating with the investigators, they said.
The defendant, Hovannes Harutiunian, is a relative of the Sarkisian brothers and is said to have told the investigators that he received from Armen $75,000 for arranging Naghdalian’s killing because the businessman suspected the latter of involvement in the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament in which his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was killed along with seven other officials.
Sarkisian strongly denied the claims during his cross-examination in a Yerevan court of first instance, saying that the money was extorted from him through blackmail. According to his version of events, he first lent Harutiunian $25,000 a year ago for what the latter described as a business deal involving imports of foreign goods, and was confronted with more requests for money after Naghdalian’s murder.
Sarkisian told the court last month that he gave the rest of the sum in several installments because he faced life threats from Harutiunian and feared that failure to pay up might implicate himself and his brother in the crime. The defendant also said that he only regrets not informing law-enforcement authorities about the alleged blackmail before his arrest last March.
His family and lawyers argue that the prosecution has failed to come up with compelling evidence to back up their charges. They also point to the fact that Harutiunian, nicknamed “Aper,” and most other defendants refused to answer any questions in the court.
“Aper” stated on several occasions that he has something to add to his purported pre-trial accounts, but court sessions were adjourned on dubious grounds every time he was about to speak. He eventually refused to talk after prosecutors brought her wife to the courtroom to testify against the oppositionist’s brother. Sarkisian’s lawyers and supporters claim that Harutiunian was bullied into keeping silent.
One of the trial prosecutors, Zelim Tadevosian, said “Aper” deserves getting off more lightly because he helped the investigators “solve the case” and has no prior criminal record. However, Tadevosian did not mention the fact that the Sarkisian relative was earlier charged with planning a separate murder and an act of “banditry.” The charges were dropped after his arrest. Reasons for that remain unclear.
The trial judge, Saro Aramian, will deliver his verdict after concluding arguments by defense lawyers and Naghdalian’s representatives. With suspect acquittals extremely rare in Armenian criminal cases, he will likely endorse most of the charges.
The Armenian opposition, of which Aram Sarkisian is a leading member, regards the case as an attempt by President Robert Kocharian to discredit his opponents who refuse to recognize his legitimacy. But Kocharian and prosecutors have denied any political motives.