By Hrach Melkumian
The Nagorno-Karabakh man who confessed to the murder of the head of Armenia’s state television and radio reaffirmed Tuesday the withdrawal of his incriminating testimony against the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian charged with masterminding the crime.
The first cross-examination of John Harutiunian and another major suspect in the court raised more questions about prosecutors’ politically sensitive case against businessman Armen Sarkisian. Harutiunian again insisted that he was never told that he is hired by Sarkisian, as is claimed in his pre-trial account.
“I retract whatever was written and signed by me,” he said. “I only accept the video of my interrogation.”
The tape, screened during the court hearings, featured Harutiunian’s first interrogation by prosecutors in Yerevan on March 3. The investigators were shown asking him questions about the Sarkisian brothers’ role in Naghdalian’s murder. The suspect did not explicitly incriminate any of them.
Harutiunian said he subsequently signed the testimony, allegedly written by the prosecutors, for fear of torture to which he claims he was subjected in a Karabakh jail before being transported to Yerevan on March 2. “I was in such a bad condition in Karabakh that I thought the same will happen here,” he said.
The prosecution says that he was hired, through a middleman, by a distant relative of Armen Sarkisian who was allegedly paid $75,000 by the latter to arrange the killing. Sarkisian and his family strongly deny the charges which they say are politically motivated. His defense attorneys question even the credibility of Harutiunian’s confession, suspecting that he was manipulated by the Armenian authorities with the aim of discrediting a leading member of the opposition.
That suspicion was reinforced during the questioning of Felix Arustamian, a second Karabakh Armenian accused of complicity in the crime. According to the indictment, Arustamian was due to shoot at Naghdalian together with Harutiunian, but chose not do that the day before the December 29 killing. He too says that his pre-trial testimony was fabricated by the prosecutors.
Arustamian claimed on Tuesday that neither himself not Harutiunian had any role in the shooting and that they were forced to admit their guilt. “John confessed to the killing because they promised us that if we do that, we will get $250,000, will sit [in jail] for eight years and then walk free,” he told the court of first instance in central Yerevan.
Both men were initially arrested by the Karabakh police in late February on charges of illegal arms possession. Sarkisian’s lawyers dismiss Harutiunian’s explanation that he made the confession in good faith after realizing that he will have to go to jail anyway.
Harutiunian’s arrest and confession was announced by the authorities only on March 5, shortly after the closure of polls in the second round of the presidential election marred by reports of electoral fraud. The announcement coincided with the publication of first official vote results showing a landslide victory for Kocharian which his opponents, among them Aram Sarkisian, refuse to recognize.
Sarkisian and other opposition leaders have repeatedly accused Kocharian of exploiting the case to stem the wave of mass demonstrations against the official outcome of the vote. The authorities deny this, saying that they have collected enough evidence to substantiate their charges. The prosecution maintains that Armen Sarkisian sought to kill Naghdalian because he believed that the latter was involved in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament in which his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was brutally assassinated.
(Photolur photo: Armen Sarkisian.)