By Ruzanna Stepanian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian pledged on Friday to seek “punishment” for some of the judges that have handed down diametrically opposite verdicts in the saga of three Armenian soldiers controversially accused of double murder.
The conscripts were unexpectedly cleared of the charges by Armenia’s Court of Cassation on December just seven months after a lower appeals court sentenced them to life imprisonment. They had been arrested in early 2004 following the still mysterious killing of two fellow soldiers from their army unit in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The three young men have vehemently denied any involvement in the killings which their defense counsels have implicitly blamed on the unit’s Karabakh Armenian commander. The lawyers have pledged to press for the prosecution of law-enforcement officials who allegedly tortured their clients and judges that condoned this and other alleged violations of due process that have marred the high-profile case.
In his first reaction to the acquittals, Sarkisian called for an official investigation into the contradictory decisions taken by the courts. “Two courts condemned those lads, while another tribunal acquitted them and ordered an additional investigation,” he said. “As a defense minister, I have a question. Which judicial body was right and which one wrong?
“I think that it will be fair to either punish the judges of the first two courts for making a wrong decision and reward the judges of the Cassation Court or do just the opposite. I will strive to clear up the situation.”
Under Armenia’s constitution, judges can be dismissed or sanctioned otherwise by the Council of Justice if they are found to have deliberately delivered unjust or illegal verdicts. Current members of the body overseeing the Armenian judiciary were appointed by President Robert Kocharian.
Sarkisian insisted that the Defense Ministry did not put pressure on the military prosecutors to cover up the killings and use Razmik Sargsian, Musa Seropian and Arayik Zalian as scapegoats. He argued that military prosecutors are not subordinated to the Armenian military. “I can’t say whether or not those lads are guilty because fortunately I’m not an investigator, prosecutor or judge,” he said.
The prosecutors’ case was essentially based on Sargsian’s videotaped “confession” made after fours days of interrogation in April 2004. The soldier said afterwards that the confession was extracted under duress. The lower courts’ dismissal of the torture allegations was condemned by Armenian and Western human rights organizations.