By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Three young men sensationally cleared in late 2006 of a mysterious murder of two fellow army soldiers went on a new trial Friday on the same charges which their lawyers say were fabricated by Armenian prosecutors to cover up the crime.
Razmik Sargsian, Arayik Zalian, and Musa Serobian are again facing the possibility of spending the rest of life in prison 18 months after being effectively acquitted by Armenia’s highest court of criminal justice. Investigators continue to accuse them of killing two other army conscripts during their military service in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The swollen bodies of Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian bearing traces of violence were recovered from a reservoir in the north of Karabakh in January 2004. The military prosecutors maintain that they were beaten to death by Sargsian, Zalian and Serobian in a violent dispute over a food parcel delivered to one of them.
The accusations are essentially based on Sargsian’s April 2004 videotaped testimony in which he confessed to that version of events. Sargsian retracted the testimony shortly afterwards, saying that he was brutally tortured into incriminating himself and his two comrades. Serobian and Zalian also claim to have been badly mistreated in custody.
A court of first instance refused to investigate the torture claims, deemed credible by local and international human rights groups, and sentenced the three men to 15 years in prison in 2005. Armenia’s Court of Appeals toughened the sentence to life imprisonment in May 2006.
In a huge blow to Armenian law-enforcement authorities, the higher Court of Cassation unexpectedly annulled both verdicts in December 2006, ordering the immediate release of the suspects and an “additional investigation” into the killings. While describing the criminal case as deeply flawed and short of evidence, the panel of six judges stopped short of formally acquitting the former conscripts, though.
The prosecutors have since reviewed the high-profile case and decided to stand by the accusations without arresting the three men this time around. The case is being heard by the Northern Criminal Court based in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. The trial adjourned shortly after its start on Friday morning because of the absence of the defendants’ attorneys.
Among those attending the trial was Movses Mkrtumian, the father of one of the murdered soldiers. “They did not kill my son,” he told RFE/RL, referring to the defendants.
Defense lawyers have repeatedly alleged that the real perpetrator of killings is Captain Ivan Grigorian, a Karabakh Armenian officer who commanded the army unit where the accused and dead soldiers served. They say that General Seyran Ohanian, the former commander of the Karabakh army and Armenia’s current defense minister, asked military prosecutors in early 2004 not to prosecute Grigorian in view of the latter’s contribution to the Armenian military victor over Azerbaijan.
The defense lawyers are also demanding criminal proceedings against military prosecutors and other law-enforcement officers who allegedly tortured their clients. The European Union for Human Rights in Strasbourg has reportedly agreed to consider a relevant torture lawsuit filed by them.
Artur Sakunts, a prominent human rights campaigner based in another northern Armenian city, Vanadzor, said the fresh trial of Sargsian, Zalian and Serobian should not have taken place in the first place and faulted the Court of Cassation for making it possible. “Under European judicial standards, prosecutors have only one chance to substantiate their accusations,” he told RFE/RL in the Gyumri courtroom. “The decision to demand an additional investigation itself is a violation of human rights.”
Although not a full acquittal, Court of Cassation’s 30-page ruling was a damning indictment of the military prosecutors’ handling of the murder case that highlights dozens out-of-combat deaths occurring in the Armenian army each year. It said both the investigators and lower courts violated Armenia’s laws stipulating that criminal accusations must be backed up by sufficient factual evidence. “A guilty verdict can not be based on presumptions,” the high court said.
But prosecutor Anahit Yeghiazarian came up with a different line of reasoning as she pressed charges against the three ex-soldiers in the Court of Appeals in April 2006. “I am guided,” she said, “not only by evidence but also by my internal conviction.”