Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 43

Armenia’s society may have become inured to high-profile assassinations covered up by the justice system. Even so, a political scandal is now simmering over the cover-up of a murder committed by presidential bodyguards on the night of September 24-25 in Yerevan’s premier jazz club, within minutes after President Robert Kocharian and his guest Charles Aznavour had left the place. The victim, Poghos Poghossian, was a wealthy resident of Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region and a prominent member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun. Poghossian had called out “Hello Robik” to the departing president when he passed by. For this perceived disrespect, a compact group of presidential bodyguards dragged Poghossian “to have a word” in the restroom. Minutes later, a badly beaten Poghossian was found lying dead on the restroom floor. His brother and legal successor sued.

On February 21, a Yerevan court gave a two-year suspended sentence, with one year on probation, to one presidential bodyguard for involuntary homicide. He will, thus, never serve time in prison. The Armenian press is sharply questioning this outcome. There was every indication during the trial that the guard, Aghamal Harutiunian, had agreed to be scapegoated in order to protect the others. A parade of witnesses stated that they had seen a group of five to seven security agents dragging Poghossian to the fatal restroom. Some testimonies were, however, ruled out by the court, and some were ignored.

The trial appeared to reach a turning point against the authorities on February 8 and thereafter with the testimony of a key witness. Stephen J. Newton, a Briton employed by the European Union’s TACIS (Technical Assistance to CIS Countries) program in Yerevan, was the only eyewitness to the beating who was willing to come forward. But, fearing for his safety in Armenia, he waited until the expiry of his EU contract and departure from the country, before testifying in writing from Britain. Newton’s account described how at least five presidential bodyguards beat Poghossian to death, causing him multiple injuries which he described. This testimony seemed to ruin the pre-trial investigation’s contention that the victim had not sustained bodily harm or blows.

The Newton testimony exposed two aspects of the apparent cover-up–to wit, the lesser charge of involuntary homicide and the use of Harutiunian to front for the other perpetrators. The court, however, ruled it out of the evidence for procedural reasons. Putative local eyewitnesses to the violence declined to testify, apparently because of intimidation. The court, moreover, refused the plaintiff’s requests for cross-examination of certain presidential bodyguards, other than Harutiunian. The ARF-Dashnaksutiun is unhappy and does not hide it, but declines to criticize its allies Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian, who is Kocharian’s closest lieutenant, in charge of the internal security and law enforcement system. Armenian press comment on the trial is both indignant at the trial’s flaws and exasperated with public apathy, which seems to deepen with every such case.

At present, the authorities are still investigating the massacre in the Armenian parliament, perpetrated on October 27, 1999. That investigation was initially manipulated by the rivals of Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian, before the president and his lieutenant turned the tables against those rivals and seized control of the investigation, which drags on. In the latest twist, the authorities announced earlier this month the opening of a criminal case against former prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serge), who was the principal victim of the October 27, 1999 carnage, and whose relatives and political associates currently lead an opposition party. With presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in Armenia, the misuse of justice for political reasons seems set to continue. While such misuse is common in most post-Soviet societies, it tends in Armenia to revolve around politically motivated or, as in this case, wanton assassinations, involving the authorities as perpetrators or victims. (Trial coverage by Noyan-Tapan, Arminfo, ArmeniaWeek, Human Rights Watch releases, February 2002; see the Monitor, September 12, 27, 2001, February 11, 2002).