Political intrigue surrounds the trial of those accused in the killing last December of Tigran Naghdalian, head of Armenia's state-run television and radio. Nearly two months after its start, the trial of 13 individuals charged in the murder has yet to fully explain the circumstances of the crime.
So far the trial has only raised fresh questions about the identities of the murder's masterminds, as well as its motives. In addition, the court proceedings have fueled political acrimony and have cast doubt on the credibility of state prosecutors' case against the main defendant, Armen Sarkisian. A businessman and brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian, Armen stands accused of organizing the murder.
The prosecution claims that Sarkisian acted out of belief that Naghdalian, a staunch supporter of President Robert Kocharian, was involved in the October 1999 carnage in the Armenian parliament that left eight senior officials dead. Among those killed in the parliament attack was the chief suspect's powerful elder brother, then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. Armen Sarkisian and his family strongly dispute the prosecutors' allegations, countering that the charges against him are part of a vendetta carried out by his political enemies, including Kocharian.
The defendants' claims of innocence appeared to receive a boost in the court earlier this month when the suspected hit-man who confessed to killing Naghdalian recanted pre-trial testimony against Armen Sarkisian. John Harutiunian, a resident of Nagorno-Karabakh, maintained that he never told the investigators that the crime was commissioned by Sarkisian. Harutiunian contended he signed his original testimony under duress, also alleging that his deposition had been prepared by prosecutors. Harutiunian went on to claim that he was tortured in a Karabakh jail before being transported to Yerevan in early March.
"I was in such a bad condition in Karabakh that I thought the same will happen here [in Yerevan]," he said.
According to the official indictment, two Karabakh men were hired by a middleman from Yerevan who acted on behalf of Hovannes Harutiunian (no relation to John), a distant relative of the Sarkisian family. Harutiunian -- whose "Aper" (buddy or brother in English) nickname suggests an underworld connection -- told investigators that he received $75,000 from Armen Sarkisian after Naghdalian was shot and killed while leaving his parents' apartment on December 29. Naghdalian is viewed as Armenia's first journalist to be killed in direct connection with his professional work.
According to the indictment, the plot to kill the pro-Kocharian chief of the Armenian Public Television and Radio was hatched by Armen Sarkisian's godfather. Sarkisian, for his part, claims that he was "blackmailed" by Hovannes Harutiunian into paying up in the weeks that followed the shooting. Neither Sarkisian nor Hovannes Harutiunian has testified in court yet.
Armenian opposition leaders have long contended that the Naghdalian trial is politically motivated. They point out that the arrests of Naghdalian's alleged assassin was made public during the hotly disputed second round of voting in the presidential election on March 5. News of the arrest, broadcast on state television, occurred nearly simultaneously with publication of the first official results of the run-off that showed a landslide victory for Kocharian. The opposition refused to recognize them and launched a campaign of street protests. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Authorities argue that the two developments happened coincidentally and that John Harutiunian unexpectedly admitted to the crime in Karabakh custody in late February. An unemployed father of four children, Harutiunian is said to have been initially arrested by the Karabakh police for illegal arms possession. At the time, he claimed to have made the Naghdalian murder confession in good faith, after realizing that he would go to jail anyway.
However, his torture allegations do not seem to be in tune with this explanation -- especially when set against testimony given by another major defendant and Karabakh Armenian, Felix Arustamian. Arustamian, who allegedly withdrew from the murder plot at the last minute, told the Yerevan court that he and Harutiunian had no role whatsoever in Naghdalian's death, and that they were forced to admit their guilt. "John confessed to the killing because they promised us that if we do that, we will get $250,000, will sit [in jail] for eight years and then walk free," Arustamian claimed.
Some of these contradictions might be clarified during the cross-examination of Armen Sarkisian and "Aper." Both are expected to appear in court in October. In the meantime, Armenians are left to ponder on yet another high-profile criminal investigation that is raising more questions than providing answers. This has already been the case at the protracted trial of the 1999 parliament attackers which has been going on for more than two years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenian courts rarely hand down rulings that are not desired by the government, and the Naghdalian murder trial is unlikely to be an exception. But whether the Armenian public will consider the case solved after the verdict appears highly doubtful.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.