The long-running trial of six gunmen that seized Armenia's parliament nearly four years ago is entering its final phase amid renewed opposition allegations of a high-level cover-up.
Relatives of those killed in the attack have reacted furiously to an August 12 decision by the presiding judge, Samvel Uzunian, not to question about 100 potential witnesses. The judge upheld prosecutors' arguments that sufficient testimony has already been heard to substantiate the case against the defendants, a group led by an obscure former journalist, Nairi Hunanian. Already, over 30 witnesses have taken the stand, providing evidence against the accused parliament assassins.
Political analysts say a guilty verdict in the trial has never appeared to be in doubt. The incident -- in which Hunanian's group burst into the National Assembly on October 27, 1999, spraying it with bullets and taking dozens of hostages before surrendering 18 hours later unfolded live on television. The attack left several prominent politicians -- including former prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian -- dead.
The trial, however, has not addressed key questions that continue to vex many Armenians: Did Hunanian's group plan and carry out the attack? Or was the tragedy the result of a broader conspiracy, possibly involving the political opponents of those who perished?
Hunanian maintains that he himself masterminded the attack with the aim of ridding Armenia of a corrupt government that, as he put it minutes after seizing the chamber, "sucked the blood" out of ordinary people. He claims that he had intended to install a new regime that would have addressed the country's post-Soviet economic woes in earnest.
The dominant view in Armenia is that the gunmen had powerful sponsors who had no direct role in the shootings. Some relatives and friends of the assassinated officials point the finger at President Robert Kocharian, noting that, at the time of their deaths, the late Sarkisian and Demirchian were powerful rivals of the president.
Indeed, the two charismatic men were the leaders of the now defunct Miasnutiun (Unity) alliance that wielded a significant amount of power after winning parliamentary elections in May 1999. Sarkisian, formerly a defense minister who had been instrumental in Kocharian's rise to power in 1998, was emerging as Armenia's most powerful man in the months leading up to the October 1999 bloodbath.
The suspicion surrounding Kocharian was at the heart of a bitter power struggle between the president and powerful government factions grouped around Sarkisian's brother and successor, Aram, in the months followed the killings. It was reinforced after the arrest in late 1999 of a top presidential aide on charges of assisting and directing the gunmen. The official, Aleksan Harutiunian, was eventually released from jail due to a lack of evidence a development that helped resolve the political struggle in Kocharian's favor.
The Armenian president has repeatedly dismissed as groundless allegations that he had a role in the parliament shooting conspiracy. In turn, Kocharian has accused his opponents of exploiting the incident for their political aims.
Yet the allegations against Kocharian have gained fresh momentum during the parliament assassination trial. Relatives of the shooting victims suspect that the court, in deciding not to hear further testimony against the defendants, is trying to quash efforts to determine the extent of the conspiracy.
Following the court's announcement, the Demirchian family declared that it will boycott the court hearings that began in February 2001. "We do not wish to participate in that farce anymore," said Stepan Demirchian, the assassinated speaker's son who now leads Armenia's largest opposition alliance. [For additional information see the EurasiaNet archive].
The Sarkisian family also denounced Uzunian's decision, but has chosen not to join the boycott. "The latest actions of the judge and the prosecutors are aimed at wrapping up the trial as soon as possible," a participating attorney, Oleg Yunoshev, told EurasiaNet this week.
Prosecutors argue that the main purpose of the ongoing trial is to punish the perpetrators of the attack. The question of who had organized should be the subject of a separate inquiry, they add. The victims' relatives, on the other hand, believe that a government cover-up aims to prevent the full context surrounding the tragedy from ever being determined.
Yunoshev said he has a list of as many as 300 people who could give the court insight into the circumstances connected with the assassinations. In addition, he said Kocharian should appear before the tribunal to publicize all details of his tête-à-tête negotiations with Hunanian that took place hours after the shootings. The president reportedly discussed the terms of the gunmen's surrender, with Kocharian guaranteeing their physical security in detention.
Yunoshev additionally wants to question Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen Sarkisian), Kocharian's most powerful political ally who headed the Armenian Ministry of National Security at the time of the parliament massacre. Investigators have revealed that Hunanian had secretly collaborated with the former KGB throughout 1998 and 1999. Also reportedly having ties with the security agency was Tigran Nazarian, a television journalist and a former friend of Hunanian's. He too negotiated with the ringleader during the hostage crisis.
Nazarian and several other witnesses have emigrated to the United States in recent years. Among them is a former parliament employee who allowed the assailants to enter the parliament building and a nurse who first examined the bullet-riddled bodies of the eight assassinated officials. The Armenian prosecutors are unlikely to try to interrogate them after judge Uzunian's ruling, observers believe.
Political analysts note that the trial itself may have been influenced by political considerations. Earlier this year, the proceedings were suspended for six months, ostensibly due to Uzunian's illness. But many in Armenia attribute the delay to the authorities' desire to avoid controversy during the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Critics now contend that the government is striving to bring the trial to a quick conclusion, aiming to secure a conviction against the accused assassins while evading the question of a broader conspiracy.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.