By Karine Kalantarian
The man who has admitted playing the pivotal role in arranging the December 2002 murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian on Friday effectively retracted his earlier testimony implicating opposition-linked businessman Armen Sarkisian in the crime.
The suspect, Gegham Shahbazian, made the statement during Review Court hearings on an appeal brought by Sarkisian and several other defendants against guilty verdicts handed down by a lower court late last month following a four-month trial. Cross-examined by the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, Shahbazian said he believes that the top suspect in the politically charged case is innocent.
The remarks contradict Shahbazian’s pre-trial written testimony in which he claimed to have been told by another suspect, Hovannes “Aper” Harutiunian, that the contract killing was commissioned by the brother of outspoken opposition leader Aram Sarkisian. He effectively reaffirmed the account by refusing to answer questions at the recent trial.
A relative of the Sarkisian family, Harutiunian claims to have been paid a total of $75,000 by Armen for organizing Naghdalian’s murder. He told prosecutors that the businessman suspected the state TV chief’s involvement in the October 1999 brutal assassination of his older brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
Armen Sarkisian says he was “blackmailed” by “Aper” into paying the money shortly after the killing. He denies any role in the preparation of the crime.
Shahbazian, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a district court in Yerevan, was allegedly paid by “Aper” to hire two hitmen from Nagorno-Karabakh and help one of them gun down Naghdalian. In his earlier testimony, Shahbazian said “Aper” repeatedly made it clear to him that the cash will be provided by Sarkisian.
But Shahbazian claimed the opposite in the appeals court, saying that he only suspected Sarkisian’s involvement but that the suspicion was explicitly dispelled by “Aper.” He said: “’Aper’ said ‘I am the one [who wants Naghdalian dead].’ I am avenging the death of my cousin [Vazgen Sarkisian].”
The suspect was vague about the reasons for his change of heart despite being pressed hard by the three presiding judges and prosecutors. “I’ve recalled the entire truth and am saying it here,” he said. “I have nothing else to add.”
Armen Sarkisian’s lawyer, Robert Grigorian, was visibly buoyed by the latest twist in the Naghdalian murder case which dealt a further blow to the prosecution’s case against his client.