By Emil Danielyan
The three Armenian soldiers who have been sensationally cleared of murder charges will push for the prosecution of law-enforcement officials and judges that nearly condemned them to a life behind bars, it emerged on Monday.
Zaruhi Postanjian, a young lawyer who has led their prolonged battle with the state security apparatus, said that her clients will seek “material and moral compensation” for spending about three years in jail on what human rights groups consider trumped-up charges. She said the botched criminal investigation into the mysterious killings of two other army conscripts has been accompanied by torture and other gross violations of due process.
“Military police officers, military prosecutors and judges carried out actions that are punishable by criminal law,” she told RFE/RL. “We will strive to ensure that they get a fair punishment for what they did to these innocent men.”
Razmik Sargsian, Musa Seropian and Arayik Zalian were set free on Friday after being unexpectedly acquitted by Armenia’s Court of Cassation. In a landmark ruling, it overturned life sentences handed to them by a lower court and ordered a fresh inquiry into the deaths of fellow soldiers Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian.
All five men served in an army unit stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh’s northern Mardakert district. The swollen corpses of Yeghiazarian and Mkrtumian bearing traces of violence were recovered from a local reservoir in January 2004. Several soldiers from their battalion were promptly arrested by military prosecutors on suspicion of involvement in the crime. One of them effectively testified that the killings were committed by Captain Ivan Grigorian, the battalion’s Karabakh Armenian commander.
The investigators, however, dismissed the testimony, releasing the suspects and arresting Sargsian, Seropian and Zalian instead. They claim that the three servicemen brutally murdered their comrades following a brawl over a food parcel that was delivered to one of them.
The accusations are essentially based on Sargsian’s videotaped “confession” made after fours days of interrogation in April 2004. Sargsian has insisted all along that the confession was extracted under duress and threats of rape. His face is clearly swollen and bruised in video of the interrogation shown by the investigators last year. According to Postanjian, the 21-year-old is now in need of “serious medical treatment.”
A court in Stepanakert dismissed the allegations of torture, also made by Seropian and Zalian, sentencing all three men to 15 years in prison in April 2005. Their protestations of innocence were also rejected by the Armenian Court of Appeals that extended the jail terms to life imprisonment last May. The extraordinary verdict was strongly condemned by local and international human rights groups before being struck down by the Court of Cassation. It was the first known case of an Armenian court defying military prosecutors.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General on Monday refused to comment on the unprecedented acquittal. “We will not react until we get a full copy of the Court of Cassation verdict,” a spokeswoman told RFE/RL.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Jahangirian, who was Armenia’s chief military and oversaw the troubled inquiry until recently, also declined comment. Jahangirian said he continues to believe that the three soldiers are guilty moments before they were cleared of the charges.
Postanjian, who screamed in disbelief as she heard the ruling on Friday, admitted that the development took her and the two other defense attorneys by surprise. But she said they do not feel that their mission has been fulfilled and will demand punishment for those who have handled the high-profile case.
“Yes, the three young men are now free,” said Postanjian. “But their nearly three-year imprisonment must be compensated not only materially but morally so that individuals working as military police officers, prosecutors or judges do not commit such illegalities in the future.”
That, according to her, means launching criminal proceedings against five military prosecutors and other investigators that arrested and interrogated Sargsian, allegedly without a warrant, as well as the judges that convicted the three soldiers. Postanjian warned that failure to do so would force the defense lawyers to file civil lawsuits and take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
“If Armenian courts do not compensate Razmik Sargsian, Musa Seropian and Arayik Zalian for the material and moral damage inflicted on them and if they fail to punish individuals who have committed those crimes, then the European Court will certainly address the matter,” she said.
Postanjian and the two other defense counsels, Ashot Atoyan and Stepan Voskanian, are themselves facing a criminal investigation for allegedly showing contempt for three judges of the Armenian Court of Appeals that jailed the conscripts for life. The Office of the Prosecutor-General 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 sentences.
Postanjian rejected the allegations as a “fabrication” aimed at discouraging herself and her colleagues from challenging the law-enforcement agency. She also repeated their suggestions that the killings were the work of Captain Grigorian, the Karabakh Armenian officer. “There are numerous clues leading to the commander of the battalion,” she said.
(RFE/RL photo: Zaruhi Postanjian.)