Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 29

A British eyewitness account has helped expose an official cover-up of the latest high-profile murder in Yerevan. The eyewitness, fearing for his safety in Armenia if he spoke up, waited until his return to Britain before providing his account.

Last September 24, President Robert Kocharian’s bodyguards beat to death Poghos Poghossian, a resident of Georgia’s Armenian-inhabited Javakheti region and prominent member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun. Poghossian had greeted Kocharian somewhat irreverently–“Hi there, Robik”–at midnight in Yerevan’s premier jazz club, where the president was hosting the renowned French singer of Armenian origin Charles Aznavour that night. The president did not seem to notice or care, but his bodyguards exchanged some sharp words with Poghossian. After Kocharian and Aznavour had left the club, presidential guards dragged Poghossian into the restroom and beat him up. Ten minutes later, Poghossian was found dead on the restroom floor. His party, which is a key ally of Kocharian, made some indignant statements, but stopped short of pursuing justice in the case.

The official investigation claimed that the victim died because he fell and hit his head against the floor. The Prosecutor’s Office indicted only one presidential guard, Aghamal Harutiunian, on the charge of involuntary manslaughter, rather than murder. The trial, which lasted from early January to early February, heard twenty-six witnesses, most of whom testified that a group of bodyguards had beaten Poghossian, and few if any of whom identified Harutiunian as a perpetrator. In the courtroom and in the press, suspicions were rife that the lesser charge and the apparent scapegoating of Harutiunian were the two sides of an official cover-up. Human Rights Watch, conducting its own investigation, concluded that the case warranted the charge of murder, possibly involving half a dozen presidential bodyguards

Throughout the proceedings, Poghossian’s family and many among the witnesses referred to an unidentified Briton who had witnessed the violence and called out in vain, first that a man was being killed, then that the man had been killed inside the restroom. Poghossian’s family and counsel obtained a recess in the trial until February 18 in order to locate the Briton and obtain his testimony. On February 8 the eyewitness, Stephen J. Newton, came forward, one week after returning to Britain from his assignment in Armenia on contract for TACIS (Technical Assistance to CIS States, a program of the European Union).

Newton’s account, given to Human Rights Watch and released through ArmeniaWeek, describes how “six to nine presidential bodyguards” beat Poghossian to death, causing him multiple injuries. He did not see the defendant Harutiunian among the perpetrators. According to local observers, his account punctures both parts of the apparent cover-up–to wit, the lesser charge of manslaughter and the use of Harutiunian to front for other perpetrators.

This court case unfolds against the backdrop of the long-running, inconclusive investigation into the carnage of October 27, 1999 in the Armenian parliament. That investigation has been heavily politicized and used as a political weapon in the power struggles in Yerevan. Nor have any of the resounding assassinations from 1993 to date been elucidated, although–or because–many of them looked like settling of accounts within the ruling system. Scathing comments in the media across the spectrum, and protests by human rights groups, seem to have had little effect. As Hayots Ashkar–an otherwise illiberal, nationalist newspaper–recently lamented, the Armenian public seems to have become accustomed and indifferent to high-profile murders that are not being solved by the authorities (ArmeniaWeek via Armenian News Network, February 9; trial coverage by Noyan-Tapan, Azg, Arminfo, and Human Rights Watch releases, January-February 2002; see the Monitor, September 12, 27, 2001).