By Karine Kalantarian and Hrach Melkumian
The five men who staged the October 1999 bloody attack on Armenia’s parliament were given widely anticipated life sentences on Tuesday at the end of a nearly three-year trial that failed to answer some of the key questions raised by the killings.
Also sentenced to life imprisonment was another defendant who helped the assailants led by former journalist Nairi Hunanian find assault rifles and drove them to the parliament building in Yerevan. Another man who accompanied them got 14 years.
Relatives and supporters of the former Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, who were assassinated along with six other officials, were quick to denounce the verdicts and repeat their allegations of a high-level cover-up of the crime. They also accused President Robert Kocharian of deliberately delaying the entry into force of legal amendments that would deny the convicted gunmen the right to parole.
The presiding judge, Samvel Uzunian, read out the rulings after 18 days of deliberations. His opening remarks were interrupted by Hunanian who claimed that prison authorities have confiscated his trial notes. Uzunian ignored the protests to announce the punishments which seemed a forgone conclusion after Armenia’s fully scrapped the death penalty earlier this year.
He found Hunanian, his younger brother Karen, their uncle Vram Galstian as well as the two other gunmen, Derenik Bejanian and Eduard Grigorian, guilty of all counts of murder leveled by prosecutors. Most of them looked nervous as the sentences were read out, with Grigorian’s hands trembling. Only Karen Hunanian, who gunned down Sarkisian from an almost point-blank range, looked calm, smiling at one point.
All of them will likely appeal the verdicts at the higher Review Court, defense lawyers said.
The armed group burst into the parliament’s main auditorium and sprayed it with bullets on October 27, 1999 with the declared aim of changing Armenia’s then government which it accused of corruption and mismanagement. The gunmen surrendered to police the next morning after negotiations with Kocharian who promised them a fair trial. The shootings, which were videotaped and shown around the world, plunged Armenia into a serious crisis and are still reverberating on its political arena.
Hunanian insisted throughout the marathon court hearings that the decision to seize the National Assembly had been taken by himself without anybody’s orders. But many in Armenia believe that the attack was part of a more high-level conspiracy to eliminate the Sarkisian-Demirchian duo just as it was becoming more powerful than Kocharian.
Relatives of the assassinated leaders suspect Kocharian of having a hand in the attack and obstructing justice. However, such claims are strongly denied as baseless by the Armenian president and his allies.
“The trial was manipulated right from the beginning, and the court has carried out an order,” claimed the later speaker’s son, opposition leader Stepan Demirchian. “The authorities have done everything to cover up the crime.”
“A just verdict would have been a death sentence,” Demirchian said.
But top pro-Kocharian politicians disagreed, arguing that Armenia’s new criminal code bans capital punishment in time of peace and that the country is also bound by its obligations to the Council of Europe. “I consider the political murders committed in the National Assembly solved,” said Vahan Hovannisian, a deputy parliament speaker and leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Under the criminal code life prisoners can be considered for early release by judicial authorities after spending at least 20 years in prison. This means that Hunanian and his henchmen may theoretically walk free in 2020 as they have already been imprisoned for 4 years.
The current Armenian parliament amended the code in early November to strip the gunmen of this right at the behest of the Demirchian-led opposition. However, it became clear on Tuesday that the changes will not apply to Hunanian’s group because they have not yet taken effect. Under Armenian law, that should happen only ten days after their official publication.
The amendments, which have still not been published in the government’s Official Gazette, were received by Kocharian on November 10 and were signed into law only on November 26. This prompted opposition claims that the delay was deliberate.
“There was no need for him to read a half-page-long text for 16 days,” said Victor Dallakian, a senior opposition lawmaker.
“This can only be assessed as an additional [security] guarantee to the October 27 criminals,” agreed another oppositionist, Albert Bazeyan.
Dashnaktsutyun’s Hovannisian, however, countered that under the new criminal code a toughening of punishment for a particular offense can not be retroactively applied to criminal suspects charged or arrested before its enactment. He said the timing of the Kocharian decree would have therefore made no difference and the parliament gunmen would have maintained their right to parole anyway.
(Photolur photo: A grim Nairi Hunanian hearing his verdict in a district court of first instance in Yerevan.)