By Karine Kalantarian
Ringleader Nairi Hunanian continued his final court speech on Tuesday in a defiant mood, strongly defending his armed group’s bloody 1999 attack on parliament which he said has benefited President Robert Kocharian and Armenia as a whole.
He claimed that he “restored the constitutional order” by helping Kocharian get rid of ambitious Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian who was emerging as the country’s most powerful leader before being assassinated by the gunmen along with seven other officials.
“The president began exercising his authority in full only after that,” Hunanian told one of the final hearings in his nearly three-year trial, arguing that Sarkisian had built up unofficial control over virtually every government structure. He blamed the late premier, shot dead by his brother Karen from almost point-blank range, for Armenia’s post-Soviet economic troubles, rigged elections and government abuse.
Those allegations were first voiced moments after the Hunanian brothers and three other gunmen burst into the National Assembly during a weekly session attended by most members of the then ruling cabinet.
Nairi Hunanian emphasized that he never intended to topple or harm Kocharian and could have easily provoked the latter’s downfall in the initial stages of the politically charged inquiry into the shootings. He said he decided to negotiate only with Kocharian on the terms of his group’s surrender the following morning to make sure that the president is “seen as the sole power center” in the country.
Shortly after his arrest, the 37-year-old former journalist, who has never expressed remorse for his actions, implicated the then chief of the presidential administration, Aleksan Harutiunian, in the conspiracy and seemed close to testifying against Kocharian at one point. But he eventually retracted his testimony against Harutiunian, saying that it was extracted under duress.
Hunanian did not mention that fact or addressed the key question of who masterminded the massacre in the second part of his closing trial arguments which he is expected to finish on Wednesday. Instead, he asserted bluntly that the killings have enabled Armenia to improve its difficult economic situation and gain more “international authority.”
He further claimed that under Armenia’s new Criminal Code he and his henchmen can only be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, rather than life imprisonment. “Life imprisonment was introduced as a new form of punishment, not as a substitute for the death penalty,” he said. “It is therefore not applicable to acts carried out before the enactment of the code.”
Interestingly, some prosecutors, speaking privately, agree with the top defendant. But others point to a newly passed amendment to the criminal code which envisages a life sentence without the right to parole for those convicted of murder.