By Ruzanna Khachatrian
One of the five gunmen who had gone on a killing spree in Armenia’s parliament in October 1999 was found dead in his prison cell on Friday.
Authorities said Vram Galstian, who was serving a life sentence along with the other attackers, committed a suicide by hanging himself in Yerevan’s Nubarashen high-security prison. Representatives of Red Cross and three human rights organizations were invited to check the official theory.
“They opened the cell and we saw him hanging from a tightly knotted bed sheet,” Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee told RFE/RL. “They did not let us see if there are any traces of violence, saying that an investigation is underway.”
A former villager from the central Gegharkunik province, Galstian was the uncle of ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his brother Karen. The brothers were convicted last December of assassinating Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and five other officials during the shock raid on the National Assembly on October 27, 1999. Galstian, for his part, was found guilty of shooting dead a lawmaker moments before the armed group burst into the main parliament auditorium.
According to Samvel Hovannisian, head of a Justice Ministry department running Armenia’s prisons, Galstian was placed in solitary confinement at his own request “three or four days” before his death. “He said he can not live with the other inmates in his previous cell,” he said.
Hovannisian also claimed that Galstian suffered from a mental illness and attempted a suicide on several occasions. “In the past inmates sharing the cell with him complained about his aggressive behavior,” he told RFE/RL.
But in Ishkhanian’s words, a prison psychologist visited the convict as recently as on April 13 and found no signs of “agitation.” Ishkhanian also noted that he and the other human rights activist were not allowed to interview the prisoners in Galstian’s former cell.
Galstian was at the center of a controversy last year after his alleged heart trouble was cited by the authorities as one of the reasons why the gunmen’s trial was interrupted for nearly six months. He denied having any health problems when the court hearings resumed on June 30. Galstian claimed that ever since his arrest on October 28, 1999 he has been regularly and forcibly injected with unknown drugs that have damaged his nervous system.
The relatives of Sarkisian and Demirchian used Galstian’s testimony at the time to substantiate their claims that the trial was put on hold due to the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003. The delay reinforced their suspicion that the parliament killings had been masterminded by President Robert Kocharian. The victims’ families and supporters have repeatedly alleged a high-level cover-up of the crime.
The authorities firmly deny the charges. And Hunanian insisted throughout the trial that the decision to seize the parliament had been taken by himself without anybody’s orders.