By Karine Kalantarian
A court in Yerevan on Tuesday again postponed the crucial cross-examination of a key defendant at the trial in the murder of Armenian state television chief Tigran Naghdalian, deciding to question his wife instead.
Gayane Melkonian, whose husband Hovannes Harutiunian is charged with personally arranging the December killing, gave weight to prosecutors’ claims that the crime was masterminded by Armen Sarkisian, a businessman and brother of a prominent opposition figure. Harutiunian’s pre-trial testimony is the main evidence cited by the investigators to back up their case against Sarkisian.
His wife said the Sarkisian family told her last February to ask Harutiunian to admit to the shooting and cover up Armen’s involvement.
Harutiunian, nicknamed “Aper,” was on the run at the time. Melkonian claimed that he told her when going into hiding that he “got embroiled in this case because of Armen.” She said that a few days later “Aper” sent a brief note asking her to tell the Sarkisian family that he “can’t last much longer.”
The piece of paper was handed to the presiding judge, Saro Aramian, and read out in the court. However, “Aper,” who is a cousin of the Sarkisian brothers, said he does not remember sending it to his wife. He also objected to questioning her as a witness before his cross-examination.
Armen Sarkisian’s defense attorney, Robert Grigorian, accused the prosecutors of pressurizing “Aper” into publicly confirming his written deposition. The judge dismissed the objections.
Harutiunian told the court earlier this month that he has “something to add” to that testimony, causing visible unease among the prosecutors. He was scheduled to speak out at the previous court session last Thursday which was interrupted ostensibly due to the illness of the defendant’s government-appointed lawyer.
Something similar happened on Tuesday, with another government-appointed lawyer representing four other suspects saying after Melkonian’s questioning that she feels unwell. Judge Aramian promptly adjourned the proceedings until next Thursday.
The investigators maintain that Sarkisian had paid “Aper” $75,000 to hire two hitmen from Nagorno-Karabakh, one of whom has confessed to shooting Naghdalian to death outside his parents’ Yerevan home. They say the suspect believed that Naghdalian had a role in the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament in which his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was killed along with seven other officials.
Sarkisian, however, has denied any involvement in the killing and told the investigators after his arrest last March that he was blackmailed by Harutiunian into paying the money after the crime. His family and sympathizers say the charges were fabricated by the authorities to discredit President Robert Kocharian’s political opponents.