By Karine Kalantarian
A former suspect in the case of the 1999 parliament shootings left Armenia for the United States last fall shortly before he was due to face a forensic test of his innocence, it emerged on Wednesday.
According to a lawyer representing the family of the assassinated parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, prosecutors informed him at the time that former journalist and pollster Nairi Badalian “left Armenia for an unknown period of time” on October 19. The lawyer, Ashot Sargsian, said they subsequently clarified that he flew to the U.S.
The information was confirmed by John Farkhoyan, a prosecutor involved in the parliament attack investigation. Some individuals familiar with Badalian say he left the country to study political science at a college in New York.
Badalian was among several prominent people, including a close aide to President Robert Kocharian, arrested in late 1999 on charges of assisting the five gunmen who seized the main parliament audience, killing Demirchian, then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials. He had been a longtime friend of Nairi Hunanian’s, the leader of the armed group and fellow ex-journalist.
A Yerevan court released Badalian from pre-trial detention in June 2000 against the will of the prosecutors, saying they have no compelling evidence of his involvement in the parliament massacre. The former suspect claimed to have been tortured into confessing his involvement and implicating presidential adviser Aleksan Harutiunian in the attack. The law-enforcement authorities say they have investigated his allegations but found no evidence of his mistreatment in custody.
The lawyers for the Demirchian and Sarkisian families have insisted since then that Badalian did have a role in the killings which they believe had been masterminded by powerful forces interested in a change of government in Armenia. In an October 2 petition to the investigators, Ashot Sargsian demanded that they hold a forensic experiment inside the parliament building in which Badalian would simulate his stated actions at the time of the attack.
Several lawmakers were also due to take part in the on-site action. Badalian said throughout the investigation that he visited the National Assembly on October 27, 1999 to meet those lawmakers and had nothing to do with the armed assailants that sprayed it with bullets.
Sargsian pointed to a 2003 court order obligating Badalian to notify the trial judge of any changes in his place of residence and alleged that the authorities told or helped him to flee the country. “I am convinced that there was government interference,” he told reporters.
Farkhoyan denied the claims. Speaking to RFE/RL, he argued that the investigators could not restrict Badalian’s movements inside and outside the country because was a witness and not a criminal suspect.
At least three other key witnesses in the case had emigrated to the U.S. shortly after the shootings. Among them was the former head of the parliament’s press service who enabled the gunmen to enter the building, a nurse who first examined the bullet-riddled bodies of the assassinated officials and a TV reporter who negotiated with the attackers on the night from October 27 to 28. The journalist, Tigran Nazarian, was a close friend of Hunanian’s.
Hunanian and five other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment by a Yerevan court of first instance on December 2. Two of them appealed against the sentences. The appeals were turned down by Armenia’s Review Court on January 22. Their cases are due to be heard by the higher Court of Appeals on February 27.
(Photolur photo: Nairi Badalian.)