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Armenia Marks 20th Anniversary Of Parliament Killings


Armenia -- People lay flowers at a memorial to the victims of the October 1999 deadly attack on the Armenian parliament, Yerevan, October 27, 2019.

Armenia’s top government officials and politicians attended on Sunday an official ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of an armed attack on the Armenian parliament which left its popular speaker Karen Demirchian, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials dead.

They were killed by five gunmen who burst into the National Assembly and sprayed it with bullets on October 27, 1999, six months after parliamentary elections won by Demirchian’s and Sarkisian’s Miasnutyun (Unity) alliance. The gunmen led by an obscure former journalist, Nairi Hunanian, accused the government of corruption and misrule and demanded regime change.

They surrendered to police after overnight negotiations with then President Robert Kocharian. They were subsequently tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Throughout their marathon trial Hunanian insisted that he himself had decided to seize the parliament without anybody's orders. But many in Armenia still believe that he and his henchmen had powerful sponsors outside the parliament building.

Some relatives and supporters of the assassinated officials still suspect Kocharian and his successor 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 rivals. Both men repeatedly dismissed such suggestions during and after a serious political crisis caused by the killings.

Armenia -- Former Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (L) and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian assassinated in the 1999 attack on parliament.
Armenia -- Former Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (L) and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian assassinated in the 1999 attack on parliament.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, other government officials as well as leaders of Armenia’s main political forces marked the anniversary by laying flowers at a memorial to the victims of the shock attack erected inside the parliament compound in Yerevan. Relatives of the victims also took part in the ceremony.

Vazgen Sarkisian’s supporters and comrades-in-arms also visited the Yerablur military ceremony where the slain prime minister was buried. Sarkisian had also served as defense ministers and been one of the founders of the Armenian armed forces.

The anniversary commemoration came less than a week after it emerged that Hunanian has asked authorities to release him on parole. The attack ringleader, who will turn 54 in December, is eligible for parole because of having spent 20 years in prison. Nevertheless, Justice Minister Rustam Badasian effectively ruled out his release last week.

On Thursday, Arman Babajanian, a parliament deputy extremely critical of Kocharian, visited Hunanian at a Yerevan prison and talked to him for two hours in the presence of the prison chief. Babajanian claimed to have received important information from Hunanian when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service afterwards. In particular, he hinted that the jailed terrorist implicated Kocharian in the killings.

Babajanian’s claims sparked speculation that the current Armenian authorities may reopen the probe of the parliament killings and bring fresh charges against Kocharian. The former president is already in jail, standing trial on charges mostly stemming from the 2008 post-election violence in Yerevan. He denies the accusations as politically motivated.

Aram Sarkisian, Vazgen’s brother and successor who has for years alleged Kocharian’s possible involvement in the 1999 plot, cautioned on Sunday that Hunanian’s potential fresh testimony must not be taken at face value. He said that the ringleader could falsely incriminate the ex-president in hopes of regaining freedom.

“Any convict thinks about getting out of jail as soon as possible and [Hunanian] doesn’t care about methods [of securing his release,]” Aram Sarkisian told reporters. “Do you think he is so honest and has so much remorse that we wants to speak up? Of course not. He saw on TV the revolution that took place in the country [in 2018,] can now see the ongoing war before the current and former rulers, and is trying to cash in on that war.”

Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (R) greets Aram Sarkisian at a memorial to the victims of the October 1999 deadly attack on the Armenian parliament, Yerevan, October 27, 2019.
Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (R) greets Aram Sarkisian at a memorial to the victims of the October 1999 deadly attack on the Armenian parliament, Yerevan, October 27, 2019.

Sarkisian, whom Kocharian sacked as prime minister in May 2000, was also skeptical about the Armenian law-enforcement and judicial authorities’ ability to thoroughly investigate and solve the killings.

“I believe that could happen only when we all can be confident that no judicial process can be politicized in any way,” agreed Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party. Marukian compared the bloody seizure of the Armenian parliament to the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John Kennedy, which also left many unanswered questions.

Artsvik Minasian, a senior member of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation, went further, alleging that individuals “representing” Pashinian’s government are now effectively offering Hunanian a politically motivated “deal.”

Pashinian declined to talk to the press after laying flowers at the parliament memorial.

Meanwhile, Sasun Mikaelian, a prominent Pashinian ally who had also been close to the late Vazgen Sarkisian, appealed to Gagik Jahangirian, the man who led the first criminal investigation into the 1999 killings and at one point indicted individuals linked to Kocharian.

Jahangirian implicitly promised to reveal new facts about the killings when he publicly pledged allegiance to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in the wake of a disputed 2008 presidential election. Like dozens of other Ter-Petrosian loyalists, he was controversially imprisoned afterwards.

“Should you also stay silent now, 20 years on, my friend?” Mikaelian said at Yerablur. “It’s about time Jahangirian said what happened [in 1999.]”

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