By Karine Kalantarian
Two senior members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) questioned Tuesday the fairness of a recent high-profile trial that convicted the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian of masterminding last year’s murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian.
They spoke as Armenia’s Review Court opened hearings on an appeal against lengthy prison sentences handed down by a lower-level court in Yerevan against businessman Armen Sarkisian and four other defendants a month ago.
Sarkisian and the man who allegedly shot Naghdalian dead got the toughest punishment: 15 years in jail. The court backed prosecutors’ claims that Sarkisian plotted to kill Naghdalian because he felt that the latter had been involved in the October 1999 assassination of his powerful brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
The defendant, backed by his family and many opposition leaders, pleaded not guilty to the charges throughout the proceedings. His lawyers say the prosecution failed to substantiate them with hard evidence.
Their arguments were echoed by the leader of the HHK faction in the Armenian parliament, Galust Sahakian, and one of its members, former Social Security Minister Razmik Martirosian. They were conspicuously present at the start of the Review Court hearings in an apparent show of solidarity with the oppositionist’s brother. Martirosian said he was not convinced by the prosecutors’ case against him.
“Yes, I do have doubts,” he told RFE/RL.
“I have very strong, very friendly bonds with the family of Armen Sarkisian and Vazgen Sarkisian,” Sahakian said for his part. “We constantly hold meetings. There really exists a problem for me.”
“I want to get a closer look at all circumstances of the case,” Sahakian added.
The HHK, which is now led by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, has been Armenia’s most influential party ever since it was founded by Vazgen Sarkisian in late 1998. Many of its senior members owe their political careers to the late premier. Some of them, including Martirosian, were his close friends and continue to maintain personal ties with his family despite the fact that Aram Sarkisian is now one of President Robert Kocharian’s most bitter foes.
Aram Sarkisian and other leaders of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance maintain that the case against Armen was trumped up by Kocharian with the aim of discrediting the Armenian opposition ahead of this year’s presidential election. They point to the fact that news of the first arrests in the murder inquiry was announced by the authorities late on March 5, immediately after the closure of polls in the second round of voting criticized as fraudulent by international observers.
Kocharian and the law-enforcement authorities have denied any political motives in their handling of the case. Their main body of evidence against Armen Sarkisian is a written pre-trial testimony by Hovannes “Aper” Harutiunian, a relative of the Sarkisian family who allegedly arranged Naghdalian’s murder on the businessman’s orders.
His repeated attempts to speak up in the court were visibly thwarted by the prosecutors. “Aper” was sentenced to only seven years in prison. Of the six jailed defendants only he did not appeal the sentence.
John Harutiunian (no relation to “Aper”), a resident of Nagorno-Karabakh who confessed to gunning down Naghdalian outside his parents’ Yerevan apartment, shouted that he was “fooled” by the prosecutors after the trial judge announced the verdicts on November 18. Harutiunian on Tuesday abandoned his state-appointed attorney, saying that he will defend himself.
The Review Court session adjourned to satisfy two other defendants’ request for new lawyers. The next hearing is scheduled for Friday.