By Ruzanna Stepanian
The saga of three Armenian army conscripts jailed for life on what human rights groups consider trumped-up charges had a dramatic finale on Friday as they walked free after being unexpectedly acquitted by Armenia’s top appeals court.
In an unprecedented blow to military prosecutors, the Court of Cassation ruled that Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian and Araik Zalian were unjustly convicted by two lower courts of murdering two fellow soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh three years ago. The panel of five judges declared the extremely controversial guilty verdicts null and void and ordered the prosecutors to re-investigate the crime.
The three young men were not present in the courtroom and were set free two hours after the announcement of the sensational verdict. Looking wan and bemused, they were mobbed by parents and other relatives outside Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison.
“It was totally unexpected. I feel like I was born again.” said Sargsian. “Are we free? I can’t believe it,” he added, giggling.
The acquittal, which followed a brief court hearing, took the family members and defense lawyers by surprise. The latter had already been preparing to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Armenian courts rarely make decisions going against the will of law-enforcement authorities, especially on criminal cases handled by military prosecutors.
The verdict sparked scenes of joy and disbelief in the court, with the defendants’ mothers dashing to the judges to kiss their hands. Sargsian’s mother Julietta briefly passed out as she heard the presiding judge, Mher Khachatrian, declare that her son, who nearly died of a hunger strike last year, is innocent.
“I didn’t expect justice,” she told RFE/RL afterwards, weeping and breathing heavily. “I feared there will be another life sentence.”
“We had little hope and it became reality,” cried Marine Seropian. “May the kids of the judge who’s has read this verdict have long lives.”
“This is not just our victory,” said Zaruhi Postanjian, one of the attorneys. “This is a victory for the non-government organizations and individuals that have campaigned for these boys.”
The extraordinary case stems from the mysterious murder in December 2003 of two soldiers from a military unit stationed in Karabakh’s northern Mardakert district. Military prosecutors have claimed all along that that Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian brutally murdered their comrades following a brawl over a food parcel that was delivered to one of the servicemen.
The accusations are essentially based on Sargsian’s pre-trial testimony in which he admitted to this version of events. He subsequently retracted the testimony, saying that he incriminated himself and his comrades under brutal torture. The 21-year-old is now said to be in poor health, reportedly suffering from a brain tumor and tuberculosis.
This did not prevent a court in Stepanakert from sentencing all three soldiers to 15 years in prison in April 2005. They protested their innocence throughout the trial and appealed the verdict only to have the Court of Appeals in Yerevan toughen it to life imprisonment in May this year.
Both trials have been denounced as a travesty of justice by local and international human rights organizations. In a September 12 open letter, the New York-based Human Rights Watch found the torture allegations “credible” and urged the Court of Cassation to give the men a fair trial. A similar statement was issued by the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights three days later.
The three defense attorneys suspect 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, he 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, only lent more credence to these suspicions in early 2004 when he wrote to Armenia’s then chief military prosecutor, Gagik Jahangirian, and asked him not to bring charges against the “war hero.” Ohanian argued that the officer had greatly contributed to the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan. Grigorian was never questioned during the ensued high-profile trials.
Jahangirian, who now holds another senior position in the Office of the Prosecutor-General, was also present in the courtroom, calmly enduring, at times with a smile, insults shouted at him by the defendants’ relatives. “Nothing has changed in my beliefs,” he told RFE/RL moments before the men were cleared of the grave accusations. “The murders were committed by those three individuals.”
But Greta Mnatsakanian, the mother of one of the slain soldiers, Hovsep Mkrtumian, strongly disagreed, saying that she believes the real perpetrators of the gruesome killings were never brought to justice. “Why did my boy meet such a fate?” she angrily asked Jahangirian. “What did he do? Why is nobody punished for such crimes?”
(Photo courtesy of the Armenian Helsinki Association: Razmik Sargsian, right, Arayik Zalian, center, and Musa Serobian pictured during a court hearing.)