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Russian Trial Of Gyumri Massacre Suspects Raises Questions

Armenia -- People light candles during a memorial ceremony for six-month-old boy Seryozha Avetisian on Liberty Square in Yerevan, January 20, 2015

Human rights activists and some ordinary citizens in Armenia are questioning the priority of a Russian-jurisdiction trial of a soldier accused of murdering the seven members of an Armenian family in Gyumri.

The trial of Valery Permyakov, a 19-year-old conscript who had served for a little more than a month in the Russian 102nd military base’s tank battalion before going on a shooting rampage in Gyumri on January 12, is set to open in the northwestern Armenian city on August 12.

Permyakov will first be tried by a Russian military on charges of desertion with arms, stealing of firearms and ammunition and illegally carrying weapons brought against him under the Russian Criminal Code, it emerged last week.

The trial in connection with the massacre itself is expected to take place in an Armenian court, but no date for this trial has been announced yet.

Russia, which had for months refused to allow Permyakov’s prosecution and trial by Armenian laws, unexpectedly agreed to transfer the case to Armenian investigators in late June amid large-scale street protests in Yerevan against electricity price hikes initiated by the Electric Networks of Armenia, a local subsidiary of Russia’s Inter RAO energy giant.

Armenian observers then said the move is likely to be Moscow’s attempt to improve its image in Armenia amid fears for a “Western-inspired colored revolution” in the former Soviet republic. Neither Armenian nor Russian officials have linked these two developments, however. Later in June Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General reaffirmed that Permyakov will stand trial in connection with the family murder case in an Armenian court.

Permyakov has been kept under arrest at the Gyumri headquarters of the Russian military base in Armenia ever since being apprehended by Russian border-guards hours after a local couple, their daughter, son, daughter-in-law and two-year-old granddaughter were found dead in their home on January 12. The seventh member of the Avetisian family, a six-month-old baby boy, succumbed to his stab wounds a week later.

Permyakov admitted murdering the Armenian family during his separate interrogations by Russian and Armenian law-enforcement officials, but his motives still remain unclear.

​Russian authorities made it clear immediately after the shock massacre that the alleged murderer would not be handed over to Armenia. This caused outrage in the small South Caucasus country, with many fearing a Russian cover-up of the case. Thousands of people demonstrated in Gyumri in mid-January to demand Permyakov’s handover to the Armenian side. Some of them clashed with riot police near the Russian consulate in Armenia’s second largest city.

The unprecedented protests forced Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian to formally ask his Russian counterpart Yuri Chayka in February to ensure that the high-profile case is transferred to Armenian jurisdiction. But the announcement that the Permyakov case will be transferred to Armenian investigators came only about five months later as the Armenian government tried to end protests sparked by the decision to grant the Russian-owned company’s bid to raise electricity prices.

Still, concerns have been voiced in Armenia that the trial opening in Gyumri on Wednesday may be used somehow to bypass the decision that has apparently been taken at the political level.

Lusine Sahakian, a lawyer who represents the interests of the Avetisians’ legal successors, does not exclude that the Russian trial of Permyakov will end sooner than the Armenian investigators are ready to submit the case to the Armenian court. (At present, the nine-volume case on the family murder that has been handed over to the Armenian side is still being translated from Russian into Armenian.)

Still, the lawyer all but excludes that even in that case this will mean that Permyakov will be immediately transferred to a prison somewhere in Russia to serve his sentence related to desertion and other charges not directly related to the murders.

“We know that certain negotiations have been conducted and we have got assurances at the level of the president that there will be a trial at the Armenian court of law. Perhaps they also discussed this matter [and agreed] that if the [Russian-jurisdiction] trial of Permyakov ends earlier, then he should be available for being tried in an Armenian court as well,” she says.

Meanwhile, Levon Barseghian, the chairman of the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists’ Club who was among those who participated in the January protests, appears less optimistic on this account, as he believes that the Russians “are capable of anything”. Barseghian maintains that the trial concerning the murders should be held first and blames the Armenian law-enforcement authorities for being “adjuncts” to their Russian counterparts.

“I still think that the principal case is the one concerning the murders, while [the soldier’s] desertion, his taking arms out of the military unit and other such charges are just related circumstances and cannot be primary for court hearings,” he said.

Barseghian also echoes the concerns of many ordinary citizens who think that Permyakov may not even be available for being tried in Armenia later. “There is this most absurd supposition that this person will be tried [by the Russian court] and sent to Siberia to serve his sentence there, and Armenians will have to continue investigating the murders case in his absentia, and then suddenly he would get a meningitis and die there [in Siberia],” he says.

The August 12 trial to be conducted by the 5th Garrison Military Court of the South Caucasus Military District of the Russian Federation has been announced as public. But the Russian side is expected to put some controls in terms of entrance.

Lawyer Sahakian says that her clients – if they decide to attend – will not have any legal status at the trial and will be mere observers. Still, she says she is going to attend the hearings because the circumstances of the case to be heard there may also shed some light on the killings.

Ordinary people in Gyumri, meanwhile, appear mistrustful of both the Russian or Armenian courts.

Artush Mkrtchian, a local middle-aged scholar, regards the entire investigation of the Permyakov case as “a farce from the beginning”.

“I don’t expect more from the trial. You know, such cases generally remain unsolved or they get solved only in other times, under a different government and in conditions of other relations,” the man says. “If Armenia could stand its ground, I don’t think that the Russians would have behaved like that. It’s a complete disregard towards us because the person who murdered our citizens gets to be tried by a foreign court, another country’s court.”

Another Gyumri resident, Ashot Mirzoyan, adds: “I cannot understand why we have been indifferent to this matter. During those days [in January] we were speaking our minds in order to make sure he [Permyakov] did not get away with it, because this issue is very important and concerns our security, but now you see what you see.”