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Armenian Army ‘Scapegoats’ Facing Life In Prison

By Emil Danielyan
Three Armenian army soldiers are facing a life in prison, accused of a double murder which they say they did not commit and which their lawyers believe was the work of their military commander in Nagorno-Karabakh.

An appeals court in Yerevan convicted this week Razmik Sargsian, Musa Serobian and Arayik Zalian of killing two fellow conscripts in December 2003, in a trial denounced by Armenian human rights organizations as a parody of justice.

The high-profile case has cast a rare media spotlight on dozens of out-of-combat deaths that occur in Armenia’s Armed Forces each year. Official figures show that Armenian servicemen are at much greater risk of dying at the hands of their commanders and comrades than from enemy fire. Hundreds of them have lost their lives as a result of hazing and other chronic army abuses since a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Karabakh 12 years ago.

Young conscripts Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian added to this grim statistics when their swollen corpses bearing traces of violence were recovered from a reservoir in Karabakh’s northern Martakert district in January 2004. Several soldiers of their unit were promptly arrested by military prosecutors on suspicion of involvement in the crime. One of them effectively testified that the killings were committed by none other than Captain Ivan Grigorian, the Karabakh Armenian commander of their battalion.

The investigators, however, dismissed the testimony, releasing the suspects and arresting three other soldiers that were subsequently given life sentences. The conviction was based on a videotaped “confession” made by one of them, Razmik Sargsian, after fours days of interrogation in April 2004. Sargsian and a team of lawyers representing the three men insists that the confession was extracted under sadistic duress and threats of rape. The 20-year-old has alleged that Armenia’s chief military prosecutor, Gagik Jahangirian, personally punched him in the face.

Although Sargsian’s face was clearly swollen and bruised in video of the interrogation shown during a court session in Yerevan last year, the investigators have strongly denied torturing him. A court in the Karabakh capital Stepanakert, which has a legally questionable status of an Armenian district court contradicting Armenia’s constitution, refused to investigate the torture allegations before sentencing the three servicemen to 15 years in prison one year ago.

On Tuesday, Armenia’s Court of Appeals not only rejected an appeal filed by their attorneys but also replaced the lengthy jail terms with a life imprisonment at the behest of the military prosecutors. Anahit Yeghiazarian, the trial prosecutor, argued in a court speech on April 18 that Sargsian could not have been severely beaten up as he hismself had written his self-incriminating testimony with a “nice and neat handwriting.”

Yeghiazarian added that the court should take into account not only factual evidence but also her and other prosecutors’ personal beliefs. “I am guided not only by evidence but also by my internal conviction,” she declared.

Zaruhi Postanjian, one of the defense lawyers, condemned the resulting harsh verdict on Thursday and said she will appeal to the Court of Cassation, Armenia’s highest criminal justice body. “I am convinced that my clients are innocent,” she told RFE/RL, adding that the appeals court deliberately refused to question most of the key witnesses in the case.

Postanjian also claimed that the lower-court ruling against her clients was toughened to discourage anyone from challenging military prosecutors in the future. “Their message boils down to the following, ‘Look, power is in our hands. If you appeal our rulings, then rest assured that you’ll end up in even greater trouble.’”

Human rights campaigners who have closely monitored the case also strongly criticized the ruling. “It will further deepen public distrust in Armenia’s judiciary and armed forces,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee. “It is a vivid of example of the state of criminal justice in Armenia.”

Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson who has personally dealt with the case, likewise decried “blatant violations” of due process which she believes were committed during the pre-trial investigation and the court hearings in Stepanakert and Yerevan.

According to the official version of events, Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian brutally murdered the two other soldiers near the Karabakh village of Mataghis and dumped their bodies into the reservoir on December 24, 2003 after a dispute over a food parcel that was delivered to one of the servicemen. The defense lawyers say there are numerous facts disproving the charges and have come up with a totally different theory. According to it, Grigorian, the battalion commander who allegedly suffers from alcoholism, beat Roman Yeghiazarian to death and killed the other victim, Hovsep Mkrtumian, after the latter refused to “confess” to the crime.

Lawyer Postanjian claimed that there are eyewitness soldiers who would testify that Mkrtumian was still alive as of December 31, 2003. She pointed to a January 2004 autopsy which found that Mkrtumian died at least two weeks after Yeghiazarian.

It has also emerged that the commander of the Karabakh Armenian army, Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanian, sent a letter to the top military prosecutor in Yerevan in early 2004 asking him not to bring charges against Grigorian. Ohanian argued in the letter that the Karabakh captain is a prominent veteran of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan.

The three young men may now spend the rest of their lives behind bars because of what another human rights campaigner, Mikael Danielian, regards as yet another high-level cover-up of army deaths. “This case is not unprecedented,” he told RFE/RL. “There have been numerous such cases. It’s just that they did not have so much resonance.”

Danielian cited the fate of Artur Mkrtchian, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for allegedly murdering five other soldiers despite pleading not guilty to the accusations. The death penalty was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.

The Armenian military insists that the number of deaths within its ranks has steadily declined since the late 1990s. However, even the official death statistics shows that it is still far from eliminating the problem. According to the Military Prosecutor’s Office, 89 soldiers died in the course of last year and only 15 of them were shot dead in skirmishes with Azerbaijani forces on the Karabakh frontline and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Ishkhanian estimated that at least 1,000 Armenian conscripts aged between 18 and 20 have lost their lives in out-of-combat incidents since the 1994 truce. He could not recall any instances of senior or mid-ranking army officers prosecuted in connection with those deaths.

(Photo courtesy of Mikael Danielian: Razmik Sargsian, right, Arayik Zalian, center, and Musa Serobian attending a court session in Yerevan.)