Armenia’s Court of Appeals agreed on Monday to order a fresh trial in connection with the violent death in September 2001 of a man at a Yerevan café visited by then President Robert Kocharian.
Poghos Poghosian, a 43-year-old ethnic Armenian from Georgia, was found dead in the café restroom shortly after Kocharian left its premises together with his entourage.
Prosecutors said at the time that Poghosian died after falling over and hitting the toilet floor with the back side of his head during a violent argument with one of Kocharian’s bodyguards, Aghamal Harutiunian. They claimed that the scuffle broke out after he “reprimanded” Poghosian for greeting Kocharian in a way he found too familiar.
Some eyewitnesses asserted, however, that Poghosian was attacked and forced into the toilet by several men who looked like security agents. The witnesses included a friend of Poghosian’s who shared a table with him at the Poplavok café, then a popular venue for jazz concerts.
Nevertheless, Harutiunian was the only presidential bodyguard prosecuted in connection with the deadly incident that caused uproar in Armenia. A district court in Yerevan backed the official version of events at the end of his high-profile trial in February 2002. Harutiunian was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and given a suspended 2-year prison sentence.
Poghosian’s friends and relatives as well as Kocharian’s political opponents condemned the verdict, alleging an official cover-up.
Armenian prosecutors decided to conduct a fresh investigation into Poghosian’s death only after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” and the ensuing arrest and prosecution of Kocharian on coup and corruption charges rejected by the ex-president as politically motivated.
The prosecutors based their decision on testimony given last year by Stephen Newton, a British citizen who claims to have witnessed the 2001 incident. Newton, who worked in Armenia at the time, stood by his earlier claims that the victim was beaten up by several presidential bodyguards.
In January this year, the Office of the Prosecutor-General formally asked the Court of Appeals to overturn the 2002 guilty verdict and order a retrial. It said that the fresh investigation conducted by another law-enforcement body found further proof that Poghosian’s death was a murder committed by “a group of individuals.”
The Court of Appeals accepted the demand, sending the case back to the Yerevan court of first instance.
During court hearings on the prosecutors’ appeal Harutiunian’s lawyers denied the new and more serious accusations leveled against the former security officer. It is not yet clear whether any of the other former or current bodyguards have also been indicted.