By Hrach Melkumian
The five perpetrators of the 1999 shootings in Armenia’s parliament may still be able to walk free in the future after President Robert Kocharian has apparently delayed the entry into force of new legislation denying them the right to parole.
The bill, which was drawn up by the Armenian opposition and primarily targeted the parliament gunmen, stipulates that individuals sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and other grave crimes can never be considered for early release. Under the previous version of Armenia’s new criminal code, life prisoners could apply for parole after spending at least 20 years in prison.
The gunmen led by former journalist Nairi Hunanian have stood trial for nearly three years and are now awaiting verdicts that will almost certainly give them life terms.
The National Assembly quickly passed the bill in the second, final reading on November 5 without a debate after an agreement between its pro-Kocharian majority and the opposition Artarutyun alliance led by close relatives of the two most high-ranking victims of the parliament massacre. It was forwarded to Kocharian five days later but was signed into law only on Wednesday.
RFE/RL learned on Thursday that the amendments will take effect ten days after their upcoming publication in the government’s Official Gazette. That means they may not be applicable to Hunanian’s group which is expected to hear the sentences from judge Samvel Uzunian next week. Several sources said the most likely date is next Tuesday.
Uzunian began his deliberations after abruptly wrapping up the protracted court hearings on November 14.
Some lawyers claimed that even if they are jailed for life before the amendments come into effect, Hunanian and his four henchmen will never be able to regain freedom because there will no longer be appropriate provisions in the criminal code to which parole-seekers must refer under Armenian law.
Artarutyun pushed the amendments through the parliament after failing to prevent a full and unconditional abolition of the death penalty in Armenia demanded by the Council of Europe. Its leader Stepan Demirchian, whose father Karen was shot dead among seven other officials in the attack, played down their significance, saying that he still believes that the gunmen can and should be sentenced to death as an exception from the rule.
“There are no guarantees in Armenia that those jailed for life will fully serve their sentences,” Demirchian told RFE/RL.
According to Aram Sarkisian, another Artarutyun leader and a brother of the assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, the gunmen will be retried and the case will be “fully solved” in case of a regime change in Yerevan. He at the same time claimed that they will remain potentially dangerous witnesses for the authorities and may be killed in prison.
“They will not live much longer, even if they are sentenced to six years,” he said.
Both the Demirchian and Sarkisian families believe that the 1999 parliament attack had powerful masterminds and may have been organized by Kocharian. However, Kocharian and his supporters have always rejected such accusations.