By Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance rallied several thousand supporters on Tuesday to mark the fifth anniversary of a shock terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament and again hold President Robert Kocharian responsible for it.
Eight officials, including then Prime Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, were shot dead on October 27, 1999 moments after five gunmen burst into the assembly and sprayed it with bullets. Artarutyun, Armenia’s largest opposition group, is led by Demirchian’s son Stepan and Sarkisian’s brother Aram.
“Kocharian and [Defense Minister] Serzh Sarkisian are directly responsible not only for not preventing the October 27 crime but also obstructing the search for its masterminds and covering up the crime,” the bloc said in a statement read out to the demonstrators.
“A precedent of usurping power through terrorism was created in Armenia,” the statement said, reiterating implicit opposition allegations that Kocharian had a hand in the parliament killings.
“Practically speaking, [the shootings] made Kocharian’s rule uncontrolled and laid the foundations of the clan-based system and dictatorship in the country,” charged Albert Bazeyan, a senior member of Artarutyun.
Such allegations accompanied an official investigation into the crime and the subsequent trial of its perpetrators led by Nairi Hunanian, a former journalist. Hunanian, who blamed the late Sarkisian for widespread corruption and poverty in Armenia, and the four other gunmen were sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2003.
Hunanian insisted throughout the nearly three-year trial that the decision to seize the National Assembly was entirely his, denying that more powerful forces were behind the plot. However, his final court speech, cut short by the presiding judge, was more ambiguous in that regard.
Kocharian, Serzh Sarkisian and their political allies have repeatedly denied any involvement in the parliament massacre. The Armenian law-enforcement authorities, for their part, say they have done their best to solve the crime and punish the guilty -- a claim strongly disputed by relatives of the assassinated leaders.
“The authorities have done everything to cover up the case,” Stepan Demirchian told RFE/RL. “The trial did not dispel the suspicions existing among the people. On the contrary, it deepened them.
The Artarutyun supporters, some of them carrying pictures of the assassinated leaders and wearing white T-shirts with “No to Terrorism” written on them, marched to the parliament building in central Yerevan. The march was not sanctioned by the municipal authorities.
About 60 demonstrators, most of them Artarutyun leaders were allowed to enter the parliament compound and lay flowers at a memorial to the attack victims. They were joined there by several dozen pro-government parliamentarians led by speaker Artur Baghdasarian. In an ensued speech, Baghdasarian urged Armenian political factions to “consolidate against evil” and make sure that the parliament attack case is “fully solved.”
(RFE/RL photo: A protester holding a 1999 election campaign poster of Vazgen Sarkisian's and Karen Demirchian's Miasnutyun alliance.)