They did not announce any results of the inquiry as of Monday evening.
Stepanian was serving a 14-year prison sentence which he had received for allegedly helping five gunmen burst into the National Assembly and spray it with bullets on October 27, 1999. The then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials were killed in the shooting spree that thrust Armenia’s government into turmoil.
The gunmen led by Nairi Hunanian, an obscure former journalist, surrendered to police after overnight negotiations with then President Robert Kocharian. All of them were tried, together with Stepanian, and sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2003.
In a short statement, a Justice Ministry department managing Armenia’s prisons said Stepanian died in his bed in Yerevan’s Nubarashen jail late on Saturday. It said an initial examination of his body found no “traces of violence.” An ongoing official inquiry involving detailed forensic examinations will determine the exact cause of the convict’s death, added the statement.
As part of that inquiry, four members of a non-governmental council monitoring prison conditions in Armenia were allowed to be present at an autopsy conducted by state forensic experts. One of them, Laura Galstian, suggested on Monday that Stepanian died of a heart attack.
Galstian, who herself is a doctor, cited prison medics as saying that Stepanian had no history of serious heart trouble. “The same was confirmed by his relatives, including a cousin whom we have met,” she said. “She last visited him with a parcel ten days ago, she kept in touch with him by phone, and he did not voice any [heart] complaints.”
Galstian said she and the three other members of the monitoring council have also talked to 16 other inmates at Nubarashen who shared the same prison cell with Stepanian. “They told us that they jointly had dinner [with Stepanian on Saturday evening] and that half an hour later he said he is feeling unwell and has to go to bed. Then his prison mates heard a wheezing sound but were unable to help him.”
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Aghasi Atabekian, a lawyer who defended Stepanian in the 2001-2003 trial, pointedly declined to exclude the possibility of his former client’s murder. Atabekian pointed to the past deaths of two other parliament attack suspects.
One of them, Norayr Yeghiazarian, was found dead in pre-trial detention in 2000, several months after being charged with supplying weapons to the gunmen, among them Hunanian’s younger brother Karen and uncle Vram Galstian. Law-enforcement authorities said at the time that Yeghiazarian, an electrician by profession, accidentally electrocuted himself to death while using a heating stove in his cell.
And in 2004, Vram Galstian was found hanged at Nubarashen. The prison administration claimed that he committed suicide.
Both prison deaths fuelled more allegations of a high-level cover-up of the parliament shootings by relatives and supporters of the assassinated officials. Some of them still suspect Kocharian and the current President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen), who was Armenia’s national security minister in October 1999, of masterminding the killings to eliminate increasingly powerful government rivals.
Hunanian insisted throughout his marathon trial that the decision to seize the National Assembly and change what he denounced as a corrupt and undemocratic government had been taken by himself without anybody's orders. But many in Armenia believe that the ringleader and his accomplices had powerful sponsors outside the parliament building.