By Emil Danielyan
A bodyguard of President Robert Kocharian denied any responsibility for the violent death last September of a man in a Yerevan café at the start of his trial on Monday.
Aghamal Harutiunian formally pleaded not guilty to the charges of involuntary manslaughter as two key witnesses told a Yerevan district court that they do not remember seeing him among several men who they said assaulted Poghos Poghosian, an ethnic Armenian from Georgia. Poghosian’s brother, meanwhile, said he does not think that Harutiunian was involved in the brutal attack.
The official criminal investigation into the fatal incident has concluded that Poghosian, 43, died accidentally in a fistfight with Harutiunian after making “obscene remarks” about Kocharian, who had left the popular nightspot minutes before.
But the victim’s relatives and some human rights groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say that Poghosian was beaten to death by several presidential guards.
This version of events was effectively endorsed by one of the three persons who were in the Aragast café with Poghosian on the night from September 24 to 25. Stepan Nalbandian claimed in his testimony that he saw his friend kicked and punched by several men and then pushed inside the café restroom shortly after one of them “asked very politely to have a word with Poghos.” Nalbandian said he was hit by the assailants as he tried to make his way into the toilet in a bid to stop the beating.
“I was shouting and asking them to stop beating him,” Nalbandian went on. “By the time I reached Poghos he was lying on the floor on his back. Some people then tried to help him, but it was too late.”
State prosecutors say that Poghosian died after falling over and hitting the toilet floor with the back side of his head. The prosecutors have concluded that the victim was knocked down by Harutiunian, implying that other presidential bodyguards were not involved in the brawl. Nobody except Harutiunian has been charged in the case.
But Nalbandian insisted that Poghosian was assaulted by several persons. He said he did not know any of them and does not remember seeing Harutiunian among them.
Another person who also shared a café table with Poghosian and is known to be his longtime friend, Yuri Navoyan, gave similar testimony, saying that he can not implicate the defendant.
The official indictment read out by prosecutor Eduard Sarikian did not contain the legal grounds on which criminal proceedings had been launched against the presidential guard. According to Sarikian, the case against him is based on his own confession and testimony given by other witnesses.
Harutiunian, however, explicitly rejected the prosecutors’ accusations. But his line of defense remains unclear. Both he and his defense attorney refuse to talk to journalists.
Meanwhile, witness Nalbandian admitted on Tuesday that shortly after the incident he told Poghosian’s brother, Andranik, that he can recognize the “five or six” men which he said were involved in the fatal beating. He said he did so only to “console” the victim’s family. “It’s been some time since the incident occurred, and I’m not sure I can recognize anyone,” he said during cross-examination.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Andranik Poghosian said he thinks that Harutiunian, a well-built balding man in his late 30s, is unlikely to have been among those who assaulted his brother. “He has a look that is hard to forget, his face is easy to remember,” he reasoned. “My intuition tells me that he is not guilty.”
He further alleged that the real culprits have not been brought to justice because of a high-level cover-up of the crime.
The security agents that accompanied Kocharian at Aragast were suspended from duty pending the investigation. But none of them except Harutiunian was brought face to face with the witnesses during the pre-trial inquiry. Critics also point to the fact that the first interrogation in the case took place on September 27, more than two days after the crime.
The official inquiry has been criticized as “flawed” by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential nationalist party of which the late Poghosian was a member.
Also, the authorities’ handling of the case has been condemned by Human Rights Watch. In a statement issued last month, the respected human rights watchdog accused Kocharian of reneging on his pledge to bring to justice all perpetrators of the crime. It said the authorities have “failed to make witnesses feel safe in coming forward.”
The two witnesses that took the stand on Monday and Tuesday confirmed that Poghosian uttered “Hello Rob” as Kocharian left the café with Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer of Armenian descent, shortly after midnight on September 25. They said they felt embarrassed and chided their friend for making the remark which they found inappropriate. But Navoyan made it clear that the greeting phrase should not be considered offensive or derisive as Poghosian “always had great esteem for the president of the republic.”
In Nalbandian’s words, about fifteen minutes later Poghosian was approached by an unknown man with a “spiraling wire” sticking out of his earphone -- an apparent communication device used by secret service agents around the world. But Navoyan
insisted that he did not see anybody approaching their table. Nor could he confirm his companion’s claim that Poghosian was publicly subjected to violence before being forced into the toilet.