By Hovannes Shoghikian and Astghik Bedevian
Opposition leaders and other relatives of senior officials killed in the October 1999 seizure of Armenia’s parliament renewed their allegations of a high-level cover-up of the terrorist attack as they marked its seventh anniversary on Friday.
They again accused the authorities of deliberately failing to track down powerful forces or individuals that they believe had masterminded the shock killings of then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, his two deputies and four other officials.
The eight men were shot dead on October 27, 1999 moments after gunmen led by an obscure former journalist, Nairi Hunanian, burst into the National Assembly and sprayed it with bullets. Although all five gunmen were arrested the next day and sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2003, there are still nagging questions about whether they acted alone or had some powerful backers. Military prosecutors that investigated the shootings appeared to believe in the latter theory, arresting but subsequently releasing several other individuals, including President Robert Kocharian’s former chief of staff.
Hunanian insisted throughout the nearly three-year trial that the decision to storm the parliament was entirely his. His final court speech, cut short by the presiding judge, was far more ambiguous in that regard.
Friends and relatives of Sarkisian and Demirchian, whose Miasnutyun (Unity) alliance swept to a landslide victory in the May 1999 parliamentary elections, were quick to point the finger at Kocharian, triggering a bitter power struggle that ended in the president’s victory in May 2000. They continue to suspect Kocharian and his chief lieutenant, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, of involvement in the crime, citing the authorities’ controversial handling of the criminal inquiry and the ensued trial. Kocharian and his political allies have repeatedly rejected such suggestions.
“The trial only deepened, rather than dispelled the public’s suspicions, and the severe consequences of October 27 continue to be felt today,” Demirchian’s son Stepan, who was Kocharian’s main challenger in the 2003 presidential election, said after laying flowers at his hugely popular father’s grave. “The authorities have done everything not to establish the truth and to cover up the crime,” he told reporters.
Sarkisian’s brother Aram, who leads the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun, was careful not to directly implicate anyone in the bloodbath, but made no secret of his suspicions. “They did nothing to prevent October 27, and they did everything not to solve the crime,” he said.
Anahit Bakhshian, the wife of the assassinated vice-speaker Yuri Bakhshian, went farther, claiming that one should look for the “organizers” of the parliament attack within Armenia’s current leadership.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who had accused the Kocharian camp of obstructing justice before being name prime minister in May 2000, shrugged off the statement. “She repeats the same thing each year,” he said. “If such suspicions had been substantiated, the organizers would have already been identified.”
Markarian spoke to journalists as he visited the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan where Vazgen Sarkisian, the most revered founder of the Armenian army, was laid to rest alongside hundreds of Armenians who died during the 1991-94 war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kocharian again did not visit Yerablur on the attack anniversary. A wreath was placed there on his behalf by officials from the presidential administration.
For his part, Tigran Torosian, the current parliament speaker, led a separate remembrance ceremony at a memorial to the attack victims inside the National Assembly compound. “At the heart of that tragedy was malice and hatred,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian, right, Demirchian and Kocharian preside over a military parade in Yerevan in September 1999.)