By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
A Yerevan court on Thursday gave a two-year suspended prison sentence to presidential bodyguard Aghamal Harutiunian on a manslaughter charge stemming from the violent death of an ethnic Armenian from Georgia last September.
In a highly controversial verdict condemned as too soft by the victim's family, the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, ruled that Harutiunian will serve 12 months of probation. He said the bodyguard displayed "criminal negligence" when he clashed with Poghos Poghosian in the rest room of a popular Yerevan cafe early on September 25, but should still avoid going to jail because of his otherwise "positive characteristics."
Poghosian was found dead in the cafe toilet shortly after Kocharian left its premises with his entourage. Forensic experts concluded that he had been beaten up before falling over and hitting the floor with the back of his head.
Poghosian's brother Andranik and his attorney, Ruben Sahakian, were conspicuously absent as the judge read out the verdict, which set a punishment demanded by the state prosecutor, Eduard Sarikian. They both walked out of the courtroom after Sarkisian's concluding speech on Tuesday. Sahakian told RFE/RL Thursday that he will file an appeal in the higher Review Court.
The defendant, who pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge, declined a comment after the 42-day court proceedings were declared over. His attorney likewise would not say whether he is satisfied with the outcome of the trial.
Judge Martirosian backed the state prosecutors' theory that Poghosian died accidentally in a one-on-one fist fight with Harutiunian. He also largely endorsed Harutiunian's and another presidential bodyguard's version of the fatal incident, concluding that there was no one in the cafe toilet except the defendant and Poghosian.
According to several eyewitnesses, the 43-year-old resident of Georgia's Armenian-populated Javakhetia region was attacked and forced into the toilet by several men who looked like security agents. But only one of them, British citizen Stephen Newton, has said that Harutiunian was among the assailants.
In a February 9 written statement sent to the Yerevan court, Newton said "between 5 and 7 of the President's men quickly entered the toilet" following Harutiunian who "placed his arm around the shoulders of Poghos." The Briton, who worked for a European Union project in Armenia at the time, said he found the latter lying on the floor moments later.
The judge on Tuesday refused to accept Newton's statement as testimony and did not mention it in his decision. The verdict states that the bodyguard only "pushed" the victim before being himself punched in the face.
The judge stressed that several minutes before the incident Harutiunian "reprimanded" Poghosian for shouting "Hello, Rob boy" as the Armenian president walked past his table. "Being under medium-level influence of alcohol, Poghosian tried to follow Harutiunian, moving in the direction of the president and other high-ranking guests," Martirosian continued. He said that a brawl broke out between several unknown men and Poghosian after the latter was kept from approaching the president's party. He said Harutiunian interfered to stop the fight before finding himself inside the toilet.
But a friend of the victim who shared with him a table at the cafe has testified that about fifteen minutes after Kocharian's departure Poghosian was approached by an unknown man who "asked politely to have a word with him." Stepan Nalbandian insists that his friend was kicked and punched by several men outside and inside the toilet.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential nationalist party of which Poghosian was a member, criticized the trial verdict as "unjust" but said Kocharian should not be blamed for it.
Aghvan Vartanian, leader of the party's parliamentary faction, said: "We are unhappy with the course and outcome of the trial." He also made it clear that Dashnaktsutyun, which continues to support Kocharian, believes the president has not sabotaged the murder inquiry or put pressure on the court.
Minister for Urban Development David Lokian, one of two government members affiliated with Dashnaktsutyun, said he has no comment on the issue.
Dashnaktsutyun's reluctance to hold Kocharian responsible for the course of the investigation was condemned by the National Unity party, a major opposition force. Its leader, Artashes Geghamian charged that the Dashnaks lack "moral integrity and courage" to defend a fellow party activist. "This verdict was not against Aghamal Harutiunian, it was against the current regime," he added.
The bodyguard's suspended sentence was also criticized by other parliamentary forces. "I personally find it hard to understand such a verdict handed down in a murder case," said Galust Sahakian, leader of the pro-government Miasnutyun faction.
"The whole thing resembled a court game, not a trial," said Frunze Kharatian of the Armenian Communist Party.
There was no immediate reaction from Kocharian's office. Harutiunian was among several bodyguards suspended from duty in the wake of the cafe death. It is not clear whether he will be reinstated in the presidential security service.
Local and international human rights groups have strongly condemned the Armenian authorities' handling of the case. The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement in December accusing Kocharian of reneging on his pledge to bring to justice all perpetrators of the crime.