By Emil Danielyan
The three former Armenian soldiers who were sensationally set free in a high-profile army murder case last December are facing renewed interrogations by military prosecutors and the possibility of again finding themselves behind bars.
The conscripts, who spent nearly three years in jail on extremely controversial murder charges, were summoned to the Military Prosecutor’s Office on Wednesday for their second joint questioning in ten days.
During the first interrogation they had to sign a written pledge not to leave in Armenia pending investigation. Summonses sent to Razmik Sargsian, Arayik Zalian, and Musa Serobian this month make it clear that they continue to be accused of murdering two other soldiers of their unit in Nagorno-Karabakh more than three years ago.
The bodies of Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian bearing traces of violence were recovered from a reservoir in the north of Karabakh in January 2004. The military prosecutors maintain that they were beaten to death by the three young men in a violent dispute over a food parcel delivered to one of them.
The accusations are essentially based on Sargsian’s April 2004 videotaped testimony in which he confessed to the official version of events. Sargsian retracted the testimony shortly afterwards, saying that he was tortured into incriminating himself and his two comrades. Serobian and Zalian also claim to have been badly mistreated in custody.
The torture claims were deemed credible by Armenian and international human rights groups. However, a court in Stepanakert refused to investigate them, sentencing all three men to 15 years in prison in 2005. Armenia’s Court of Appeals toughened the sentence to life imprisonment in May 2006.
In a huge blow to Armenian law-enforcement authorities, the higher Court of Cassation unexpectedly annulled both verdicts on December 22, ordering the immediate release of the suspects and an “additional investigation” into the mysterious killings. But while describing the criminal case as deeply flawed and lacking evidence, the panel of six judges stopped short of formally acquitting the former conscripts.
According to Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, this means the accusations leveled against Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian still stand. “If the Court of Cassation believed they are innocent, it would have acquitted them,” said a spokeswoman for the law-enforcement body, Sona Truzian.
Truzian could not say whether the investigators, all of them replaced after the December 22 judgment, will be seeking to again put the freed soldiers on trial. “The decision will be made only after the additional inquiry is over,” she told RFE/RL. “It could take a few more months. Again, they were not acquitted by the court.”
One of the suspects, Arayik Zalian, was separately questioned on Tuesday by Vartan Smbatian, a military prosecutor leading the inquiry. Zalian said that the conversation was rather friendly as Smbatian did not demand that he admit to the charges and instead asked him about his alleged mistreatment by other interrogators.
“I’m not scared of anything,” Zalian told RFE/RL before heading to Smbatian’s office with the two other young men. “Let them interrogate me as long as they want, but they are wasting their time. They interrogated me for three years. What else do they want to know?”
The accused trio’s main lawyer, Zaruhi Postanjian, appears confident that her clients will not end up in the dock. “I don’t think they will again throw the boys into jail,” she told RFE/RL. “They just want us to stop demanding punishment of the real murderers that remain at large.”
Postanjian and two other defense attorneys have repeatedly suggested that the real perpetrator of killings is Captain Ivan Grigorian, a Karabakh Armenian officer who commanded the army unit where the accused and dead soldiers served. The commander of the Karabakh army, Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanian, only reinforced these suspicions in early 2004 when he asked military prosecutors not to bring charges against Grigorian in view of the latter’s contribution to the Armenian military victor over Azerbaijan.
The defense lawyers are also demanding criminal proceedings against military prosecutors and other law-enforcement officers that allegedly tortured their clients and committed other violations of due process. The European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg is now considering taking up a relevant case filed by them.
The Armenian Court of Cassation likewise faulted the lower courts for refusing to investigate the torture claims. Though not a full acquittal, its 29-page ruling is a damning indictment of the military prosecutors’ handling of a murder case highlighting dozens of out-of-combat deaths that occur in the Armenian army each year. The full text of the verdict was released only a month ago.
It was the first known case of an Armenian judicial body rebuffing the prosecutors. Human rights campaigners hope that it set an important precedent for judicial independence in the country.
“The Court of Cassation concludes that this case has seen such violations of the law on procedural justice that precluded an objective, comprehensive and full investigation and can not be eliminated during a judicial process,” read the verdict. It said both the investigators and lower courts violated provisions of Armenian laws stipulating that criminal accusations must only stem from sufficient factual evidence. “A guilty verdict can not be based on presumptions,” the court said.
Anahit Yeghiazarian, the trial prosecutor who pressed charges against Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian, will not necessarily agree. Making her case in the Court of Appeals in April last year, Yeghiazarian said: “I am guided not only by evidence but also by my internal conviction.”
(RFE/RL photo: Musa Serobian, left, Arayik Zalian, center, and Razmik Sargsian.)