By Anna Saghabalian and Emil Danielyan
State prosecutors have launched criminal proceedings against the defense attorneys of three Armenian soldiers sentenced to life imprisonment on what local and international human rights groups see as trumped-up murder charges, it emerged on Wednesday.
Zaruhi Postanjian, Ashot Atoyan and Stepan Voskanian are being investigated for allegedly showing contempt for three judges of the Armenian Court of Appeals that handed down the ruling last May.
It is not clear when the judges lodged a formal complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor-General. The latter opened a criminal case against the lawyers on October 10, the day after the Court of Cassation, Armenia’s highest body of criminal justice, agreed to consider their appeal against the extremely controversial life sentences.
The lawyers strongly deny the contempt of court accusations that could be leveled against them and see the prosecutors’ move as a retaliation for their vocal support for the jailed soldiers. “They are thereby trying to force us to abandon the case,” Voskanian told RFE/RL. He said it is the three judges that repeatedly insulted the defense lawyers during the appeal proceedings and must be prosecuted.
The extraordinary criminal proceedings bring a new twist to the saga of Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian and Araik Zalian. The three young men were originally convicted of murdering two fellow servicemen in Nagorno-Karabakh and sentenced to 15 years in prison by a local court of first instance in April 2005. They protested their innocence throughout the trial and appealed against the verdict only to see it toughened to life imprisonment by the appeals court.
Military prosecutors allege that Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian murdered the two other soldiers and dumped their bodies into a reservoir in northern Karabakh in December 2003 following a brawl over a food parcel that was delivered to one of the servicemen. The accusations are based on Sargsian’s pre-trial testimony in which he admitted to this version of events.
However, Sargsian subsequently retracted the testimony, saying that he incriminated himself and his comrades under brutal torture. The two other defendants, who never pleaded guilty to the charges, also claim to have been mistreated in custody.
Both courts refused to investigate the alleged torture, denied by the prosecutors, leading the defense lawyers and Armenian human rights activists to denounce the trials as a parody of justice.
Ruben Sahakian, chairman of Armenia’s Chamber of Advocates, expressed serious concern at the case on Wednesday, saying that the leadership of the bar association will meet soon to discuss it. “We will adopt a statement during that meeting,” Sahakian told RFE/RL.
The case has also had a resonance outside Armenia, with Human Rights Watch finding the torture allegations “credible” and urging the Court of Cassation to give the young men a fair trial.
“Human Rights Watch believes that it is very important that ... a prompt investigation into the allegations is ordered, and that all measures are put in place to ensure that any conviction based on evidence coerced under torture does not stand,” the New York-based group’s director for Europe and Central Asia, Holly Cartner, said in a September 12 letter to the Armenian Court of Cassation.
Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, echoed those concerns in a similar letter sent to Yerevan three days later. “The investigation into the murders, and the subsequent trials, were marred with irregularities that raise questions about Armenian prosecutors’ and judiciary’s professional qualifications and commitment to international standards for a fair trial,” Rhodes wrote.
The defense trio suspects that both murders were committed by Captain Ivan Grigorian, the Karabakh Armenian commander of the army unit where the dead soldiers served. According to their version of events, Grigorian beat one of the soldiers to death and killed the other after the latter refused to “confess” to the crime.
The commander of the Karabakh army, Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanian, lent more credence to these suspicions when he wrote to Armenia’s chief military prosecutor in early 2004 and asked him not to bring charges against Grigorian. Ohanian argued that the officer had greatly contributed to the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan.