In one of the most dramatic acquittals in Armenia’s history, a court in Gyumri on Tuesday cleared three former soldiers of involvement in the 2003 violent death of two other servicemen which human rights groups claim was covered up military prosecutors.
By declaring Musa Serobian, Arayik Zalian and Razmik Sargsian innocent, the court effectively gave more weight to long-standing allegations of torture and other abuses committed during the criminal investigation into the high-profile case.
The three young men were arrested in early 2004 and charged with murdering fellow conscripts Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian near their army unit deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yeghiazarian’s and Mkrtumian’s bodies were recovered from a reservoir near the village of Mataghis in January 2004. The military prosecutors maintained that they were beaten to death by Sargsian, Zalian and Serobian in a violent dispute.
The accusations were essentially based on Razmik 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 claimed 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. The Armenian Court of Appeals toughened the sentence to life imprisonment in May 2006.
In a serious blow to Armenian law-enforcement authorities, the higher Court of Cassation annulled both verdicts in December 2006, ordering the immediate release of the suspects and an “additional investigation” into the killings. It was the first known case of an Armenian judicial body ruling against military prosecutors.
The three men went on a fresh trial on the same murder charges in July 2008. But they were not again arrested pending a final verdict in the case.
As the long trial drew to a close earlier this month the military prosecutors downgraded the accusations to violent assault and involuntary manslaughter and demanded that the defendants be sentenced to 7 and 8 years in prison.
However, the panel of three judges acquitted Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian, saying that the prosecution failed to substantiate its claims. The court also ordered law-enforcement authorities to hunt for other murder suspects. It was not immediately clear if the prosecutors will appeal the verdict.
The announcement of the verdict sparked rapturous applause and cries of joy by the defendants and dozens of their relatives and sympathizers present in the courtroom.
“Frankly, I always expected fair verdicts from our courts, even when we were sentenced to life imprisonment,” Zalian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “That’s what happens when you are innocent.”
“It was a surprise for all of us,” disagreed Sargsian. “We have waited for justice for nine years. We had lost hope.”
The verdict was also welcomed by Mkrtich Mkrtumian, the father of one of the dead soldiers. “These kids are innocent,” he said. “The real culprits must be punished at last.”
Defense lawyers have repeatedly alleged that the real perpetrator of the Mataghis killings is a Karabakh Armenian officer who commanded the army unit where the accused and murdered soldiers served. They have also demanded criminal proceedings against military and law-enforcement officers who allegedly tortured their clients. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is currently considering a torture lawsuit filed by them.
The controversial murder investigation was personally overseen in 2004-2006 by Gagik Jahangirian, Armenia’s chief military prosecutor at the time and currently a parliament deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). He has strongly defended his handling of the probe all along.
Jahangirian, who has frequently decried human rights abuses in Armenia since becoming an opposition politician in 2008, remained unrepentant after the announcement of the latest verdict in the Mataghis case. “It’s you who should feel guilty for the fact that the murderers remain at large,” he angrily told reporters in Yerevan.
Zaruhi Postanjian, the defendants’ former leading lawyer who played a major role in their release from prison, is also a member of the National Assembly now. She is affiliated with the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. Postanjian was among several dozen activists who demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Yerevan last week to protest against a possible renewed imprisonment of Sargsian, Serobian and Zalian.
Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner who has closely monitored the case, also feared that the three men could be thrown back in jail. He said on Tuesday that their acquittal may have set an important precedent for Armenia’s judicial system notorious for its lack of independence.
“In the Republic of Armenia, injustice is still widespread,” Sakunts told RFE/RL’s Armenian service in the Gyumri court. “But this case will have a strong impact on the behavior and mentality of the system.”
Sakunts stressed at the same time the Mataghis murder has not been solved. “Justice will be fully done when the real culprits are prosecuted and their victims are compensated,” he said.