Sixteen men, most of them military, have been on trial since September 18 in Stepanakert, accused of involvement in the March 22 assassination attempt on Arkady Gukasian. The president of the unrecognized Karabakh republic was wounded in that ambush in downtown Stepanakert, underwent a four-month medical treatment in Yerevan and has, since returning in July, had a hand in the criminal proceedings against these defendants. The charges against them center on terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the republic’s leadership by force.
The case is the first of its kind in Karabakh, but has ample precedent in Armenia proper, where several group trials of “terrorists” and gunmen have been staged in recent years as an integral part of feuding within the official establishment. The trial in Stepanakert is surrounded by the same atmosphere of secrecy, political intrigue and executive branch manipulation of the judicial process, that characterized those trials in Armenia proper. But while the defendants in those trials were, as a rule, small fry whose highly placed sponsors eluded justice, the Stepanakert trial features a top military and political figure, Lieutenant-General Samvel Babaian, as the main defendant.
Babaian commanded the Karabakh-Armenian forces in the 1991-94 war against Azerbaijan. He was Karabakh’s defense minister until 1999 and enjoyed the status of a national hero in Karabakh and in Armenia proper. Capitalizing on that status, he built an economic mini-empire for himself, his family and his military cohorts in Karabakh. In 1998-99, Babaian made a bid for the top leadership post in the unrecognized republic. He sponsored a political movement and had personal supporters up to colonels’ ranks in the Karabakh army and police. Babaian’s brother Karen held, successively, the key posts of internal affairs minister and mayor of Stepanakert. Last year, Samvel Babaian became an important political player also in Yerevan as well. There, he sponsored the nationalist Right and Accord bloc in the 1999 elections and in the new Armenian parliament. That bloc currently campaigns to exonerate Babaian from the charges against him.
Babaian’s seemingly unstoppable bid for Karabakh’s presidency was ultimately thwarted by Armenian strongman Vazgen Sarkisian, shortly before the latter’s assassination in Yerevan in October 1999. Sarkisian threw his support to Gukasian, organized a purge of Babaian’s military supporters in Karabakh, and made it possible for the new prime minister of Karabakh, Anushavan Danielian, to promote the business interests of clans rival to Babaian’s. The latter was ousted in December 1999 from all official posts. In March of this year, Karabakh’s authorities arrested Babaian and his diehard supporters on suspicion of having perpetrated the assault on Gukasian.
The pretrial investigation has been tainted by secrecy, restrictions on the defendants’ access to legal counsel, the arrest of the editor of the pro-Babaian newspaper in Stepanakert and alleged torture of the Babaians and some co-defendants. The prosecution and other Karabakh authorities publicly and repeatedly pronounced the defendants guilty before the trial began. One key defendant, Lieutenant-Colonel Sasun Aghajanian, is absent from the dock. Aghajanian, a former commander of Babaian’s bodyguards, was charged with having fired on Gukasian in the March 22 ambush. In August, however, the proceedings against Aghajanian were “suspended” and he was transferred to a psychiatric clinic in Yerevan. That move opens the possibility of surprises down the road in this trial.
In Yerevan, media comment on the Babaian trial reflects widespread skepticism about the authorities’ case. That reaction stems in part from the political manipulation in Armenia proper of the ongoing investigation into the October 1999 bloodbath in parliament. In the political arena, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaksutiun) works with Right and Accord in calling for a “fair trial” in Stepanakert. The Dashnaks share Babaian’s and the Right and Accord bloc’s hardline views on the resolution of the conflict with Azerbaijan. Babaian was advocating the permanent retention of some areas beyond Karabakh, in Azerbaijan proper, from which the Azeri population had been forced to flee during the war.
In the absence of verifiable official information, Armenian media detect some differences between President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian over the trial in Stepanakert. Both men formerly held leadership posts–Kocharian as president–in Karabakh. The duo recently triumphed over their rivals for power in Armenia (see the Monitor, May 3, 15; Fortnight in Review, May 12). Right and Accord supported the Kocharian-Serge Sarkisian camp in that power struggle. At present, however, the defense minister is said to press for maximum punishment of the accused in Stepanakurt, while Kocharian seems sympathetic to calls for a “fair and transparent trial” (Noyan-Tapan, Armenpress, Azg, Snark,September 15-20; see the Monitor, June 30, July 6, 16, December 20, 1999, March 24, 29, 2000).
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