By Armen Zakarian
Mushegh Saghatelian, the controversial former chief of Armenia’s prison system, went on trial Wednesday, facing a long list of accusations mostly related to the mistreatment of detainees. He is also charged with seeking false testimony to implicate President Robert Kocharian in the 1999 parliament shootings.
Saghatelian, notorious for his brutality, is the first former top law-enforcement official to be prosecuted for the alleged torture of suspects in custody. He was arrested late last year shortly after openly accusing Kocharian of involvement in the parliament attack.
Saghatelian pleaded not guilty to all counts after appearing before a Yerevan court to the rapturous applause of dozens of supporters chanting “Mushegh, Mushegh.” Most of them represent the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party. They reject the charges as politically motivated.
Saghatelian stands accused of providing a bogus university diploma that allowed him to get a job in the Armenian interior ministry in the early 1990s. The indictment read out by Prosecutor Koryun Piloyan holds him responsible for the physical abuse of dozens of persons. The prosecutors claim that one of several fugitive prison inmates caught by police in 1994 died after being tortured by Saghatelian.
Other charges stem from the former prison chief’s role in a government crackdown on the opposition that in the wake of the September 1996 presidential elections tainted with vote-rigging and other irregularities. Several prominent members of the then opposition parties, including the current Minister for State Property David Vartanian, arrested at the time claim to have been beaten by Saghatelian. All of them have been called up to testify at the trial.
Saghatelian is also accused of promising one of the suspects in the 1999 attack investigation $50,000 in return for testimony against Kocharian whom some friends and supporters of the assassinated officials still suspect of having orchestrated the parliament bloodbath. Together with Saghatelian, they were part of a powerful governing faction that lost a power struggle with Kocharian by May 2000. They were all ousted from the government.
Human rights activists and Hanrapetutyun leaders note that the authorities moved to prosecute Saghatelian for the alleged abuse of power only after he charged that the parliament killings had been masterminded by Kocharian.
Seated in the caged dock, the former prison boss defied the court by smoking a cigarette. Saghatelian described himself as a victim of “political persecution.” His supporters reacted furiously to Judge Vazgen Lalayan’s refusal to release the defendant pending the trial.