By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
European Union officials in Yerevan are unusually tight-lipped about one of their colleagues who has alleged a high-level cover-up over the violent death last September of a man in a popular Yerevan cafe widely blamed on President Robert Kocharian's bodyguards.
Stephen Newton, a British national who worked for the EU's TACIS program in Armenia, was in the Aragast cafe on the day of the incident and has accused presidential bodyguards of beating to death Poghos Poghosian, a 43-year-old Armenian community activist from Georgia. He has strongly challenged the official theory that Poghosian died accidentally in a fistfight with Aghamal Harutiunian -- one of the guards currently facing trial on a manslaughter charge.
EU agencies in Yerevan are refusing to comment on some circumstances of Newton's work, keeping the media guessing about reasons for his departure from Armenia earlier this month. The Briton, who advised the Armenian government on reform of public administration, left the country on February 2, one week after a Yerevan court asked the authorities to find out his identity and whereabouts.
He was still in Armenia when the foreign and interior ministries submitted an official reply on February 1 stating that they were unable to locate him. In a written statement presented to the district court on Monday and an earlier interview with Human Rights Watch, Newton said he feared for his life in the months following Poghosian's murder.
It is not clear whether his short-term contract with TACIS was meant to expire on February 1. The European Commission's chief representative to Armenia, Sebastien Dubost, could not be reached for comment on Monday. The head of the TACIS project which employed Newton most recently, Richard Lucking, categorically refused to answer any questions from RFE/RL. Lucking gave no explanation for the refusal.
The head of an EU office coordinating all TACIS projects in Armenia also declined a comment. An office spokeswoman claimed earlier that Newton's contract with the EU agency had expired on October 4. But on Monday she admitted that he continued his work up until this month.
In his statement sealed by a notary from the British embassy in Yerevan, Newton says it was "fear for my life" that prompted him to leave the country one week after the cafe murder. "I stayed in the UK for two weeks and returned to Armenia after it appeared that a prosecution would go ahead without involving me," he says.
Newton cited similar concerns when he asked a researcher from Human Rights Watch not to publicize his interview given in Yerevan last December.
An employee of the Armenian School of Public Administration, where Newton had an office from November through the end of January, told RFE/RL that the Briton's departure was unexpected. He said Newton was one of the organizers of a conference on civil service reform which took place just one week before he left for London.
The court is expected to decide on Tuesday whether to accept the statement made by Newton in absentia as formal testimony. The accused bodyguard's defense attorney, Vahan Yanikian, said the document should not be treated as evidence by the judge. "Let him come to the trial and testify," Yanikian argued.
None of two dozen witnesses questioned by the court so far has implicated bodyguard Harutiunian in Poghosian's death. Even the two men that sat at the same table with Poghosian say they do not remember seeing the bodyguard among several men that they say assaulted their friend several minutes after Kocharian left the nightspot with his entourage.
According to one of them, Stepan Nalbandian, they kicked and punched Poghosian. Nalbandian, however, has said during his repeated cross-examinations that he can not recognize any of the assailants.
Harutiunian, known to the public with his nickname "Kuku," has pleaded not guilty to the accusations of involuntary manslaughter, saying that he was only defending himself against Poghosian's punches in the cafe toilet. He insists that Poghosian fell over and hit the back of his head on the toilet floor after his "gentle shove."
The bodyguard's account of the incident has been brushed aside as "totally false" by Newton. "The press coverage and in particular the TV have shown that 'Kuku' is a liar and it seems to me that the other witnesses are too frightened to tell the truth," his statement, dated February 9, reads.
Newton says he saw "between 5 and 7 of the president's men" enter the toilet shortly before he found Poghosian lying on the floor. "It was clear to me that Poghosian had been very badly beaten around the head, probably kicked, and a large lump on his left temple, about the size of a thumb, indicated a possible blow from a pistol or similar blunt instrument…Because of the swelling you could hardly see Poghosian's eyes, and the swelling of his face generally made it about twenty percent larger than normal."
"It was a sickening, terrible sight, the memory of which I still find deeply disturbing," Newton adds.
Forensic experts that examined Poghosian's body also concluded that he had been badly beaten up. They told the court hearings last month that they found numerous blood-stained bruises on Poghosian's face, hands and legs.
The authorities' handling of the case has been strongly criticized by domestic and international human rights groups. "The incident at Aragast is the most extraordinary and disgraceful phenomenon in independent Armenia's history," Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee told RFE/RL over the weekend.
The official inquiry has also been denounced by 18 ethnic Armenian organizations operating in Georgia.