Armenia: Blood and Bile

Armenia: Blood and Bile
by Emil Danielyan

Transitions Online
27 October 2004

Five years on, the slaughter of Armenia’s prime minister and seven
other politicians is still a mystery. And so the political bloodletting

YEREVAN, Armenia — When a crime is committed in front of television
cameras and dozens of eyewitnesses, and its perpetrators are arrested
less than 24 hours later, few would expect it not to be solved. And
few Armenians did so when five gunmen turned themselves in after
seizing their parliament and spraying it with bullets exactly five
years ago. It seemed that there was so much factual evidence that even
the most incompetent law-enforcement official would quickly establish
the truth about a shocking attack that killed eight senior officials,
including Armenia’s then-prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian and the
speaker of parliament, Karen Demirchian.

Yet precisely what happened inside and outside the parliament building
in Yerevan on 27 October 1999 is still a mystery and may never be
known. Increasingly, the case resembles the 1963 assassination of
U.S. President John Kennedy, many circumstances of which remain
unknown to this day. The most important unanswered question in both
high-profile killings is who masterminded them. That mystery is
particularly acute in Armenia, where President Robert Kocharian is
still dogged by allegations that he was personally involved in the
shootings despite the absence of compelling evidence against him.


The perceived high-level cover-up of the crime has been a key rallying
point for Kocharian’s most bitter political opponents. Incidentally,
two of them are Sarkisian’s brother Aram and Demirchian’s son
Stepan. These men lead Armenia’s biggest opposition alliance,
Artarutyun (Justice). The younger Demirchian was Kocharian’s main
challenger in last year’s presidential election, which international
monitors heavily criticized for widespread fraud. Artarutyun insists
that he was the rightful winner of a vote that was officially won by
the incumbent.

The relatives of the two assassinated leaders are convinced that
ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen were acting on
somebody’s orders when they burst into the National Assembly during
its regular question-and-answer session with cabinet members. The
gunmen, among them Hunanian’s brother Karen and uncle Vram Galstian,
had no trouble smuggling Kalashnikov rifles into the chamber, where
they shot Prime Minister Sarkisian and speaker Demirchian and his two
deputies from almost point-blank range. Four other parliamentarians and
government ministers also died in a hail of automatic gunfire. Dozens
of their colleagues were held hostage until the assailants surrendered
to police the next morning.

Hunanian declared immediately after the bloodbath that he wanted to
rid Armenia of a corrupt government that had for years been “sucking
the people’s blood.” He specifically blamed Sarkisian, seen at the
time as Armenia’s most powerful man, for the country’s post-Soviet
economic woes, rigged elections, and abuse of power. All five gunmen
were sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2003 after a nearly
three-year trial.

Some of Hunanian’s accusations were not unfounded. Indeed, Sarkisian,
formerly a defense minister and one of the founders of the Armenian
army, did play a pivotal role in presidential elections held in 1996
and 1998, both of which were reportedly falsified. It was a role that
led many Armenians to loathe him. However, the public mood seems to
have changed dramatically in early 1999 when Sarkisian decided to team
up with Karen Demirchian, Armenia’s hugely popular Soviet-era ruler.

The two men were murdered almost five months after a parliamentary
election in which an alliance co-headed by them swept to a landslide
victory. The May 1999 vote is still seen by many experts as the sole
relatively clean Armenian election held since independence. The
Sarkisian-Demirchian duo formed a new cabinet as a result and was
gradually weakening the grip on power that Kocharian had enjoyed
since becoming president in 1998.

That is why fingers were immediately pointed at Kocharian. Powerful
government factions and army generals loyal to the former defense chief
were close to forcing him into resignation later in 1999. Kocharian
eventually prevailed in the bitter power struggle, reinforcing his
reputation as a canny and shrewd politician. But his skills have so
far failed to put an end to the nagging suspicion about his possible
involvement in the shootings.


“I accuse the authorities of doing nothing to prevent the 27 October
crime from happening and doing everything to prevent it from being
solved,” Aram Sarkisian, the late premier’s brother, has said. But
both Stepan Demirchian and he are careful not to accuse Kocharian
explicitly of masterminding the conspiracy. They instead point to the
many apparent flaws in the more-than-yearlong criminal investigation
into the parliament shootings and particularly to the authorities’
handling of the ensuing trial of the gunmen.

Throughout the marathon trial Hunanian insisted that he had made the
decision to storm the National Assembly without anybody’s orders. But
his concluding remarks in the court in November 2003 were more
ambiguous. He stated bluntly that he “restored the constitutional
order” by helping Kocharian become “the sole power center” in the
country. “The president began exercising his authority in full only
after that,” he said.

The 38-year-old former student activist and journalist was not allowed
to finish his speech three days later just as he was about to reveal
“new circumstances” of the case. The presiding judge, Samvel Uzunian,
interrupted him to end the proceedings, arguing that the question of
who had engineered the massacre is the subject of a separate inquiry
conducted by prosecutors.

Uzunian had already sparked controversy in August 2003 when he cut
short the trial by not hearing testimony from more than a hundred
witnesses. The judge accepted prosecutors’ argument that 29 other
witnesses cross-examined during the hearings had already provided
sufficient information about the crime. The Sarkisian and Demirchian
families portrayed that as another proof of a cover-up.

The trial was effectively suspended for six months in the first half
of last year ostensibly due to health problems suffered by Uzunian
and Galstian, who was also a defendant. The hiatus coincided with
presidential elections in February and March 2003 and parliamentary
elections in May. Relatives and supporters of the assassinated leaders
say Kocharian and his allies wanted to avoid negative publicity
associated with the politically sensitive case.

When the court hearings resumed in June 2003, Galstian, Hunanian’s
uncle, denied that he had been suffering from ill health (adding
that prison guards had forcibly injected him with unidentified
drugs). This April, he was found dead in his prison cell under
still-murky circumstances. The authorities said he was suffering from
a mental illness and committed suicide a few days after being placed
in solitary confinement at his own request.

But according to Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee,
a prison psychologist visited Galstian shortly before his death and
found no signs of “agitation.” Ishkhanian and two other human rights
activists were allowed to see Galstian’s body hanging from a bed sheet
at Yerevan’s maximum-security Nubarashen jail. “They did not let us
see if there are any traces of violence, saying that an investigation
is underway,” he said afterward.

The official investigation into the 27 October case was also marred
by a scandal over the alleged editing of the harrowing video of
the shootings. The Russian attorney for the Sarkisian family, Oleg
Yunoshev, has repeatedly charged that it was doctored by the state-run
Armenian Public Television before being broadcast worldwide. Even
Hunanian has backed the claim, which has been strongly denied by
the authorities.

“I myself ordered [a state television] cameraman to shoot everything
and never understood why just over eight minutes of the film was left
from a shooting that lasted between 15 and 20 minutes,” the ringleader
of the killings told the court.

Yunoshev has linked the scandal to the murder, in December 2002,
of the state television chief, Tigran Naghdalian, suggesting that
the authorities eliminated a key witness to the alleged editing of
the tape. But according to the official version of the crime, the
first murder of a journalist in Armenia was commissioned by the late
Sarkisian’s second brother, Armen, because he felt that Naghdalian
was also involved in the parliament attack.

Armen Sarkisian was sentenced to 15 years in prison early this year
after pleading not guilty to the charges. His family denounced the
imprisonment as politically motivated.

Five years later, the killings in parliament thus continue to shape
Armenia’s political life, raising the stakes for Kocharian in his
bitter standoff with the two opposition leaders. Finding out the
truth about the massacre is a key motivation for Stepan Demirchian
and Aram Sarkisian in their fight for regime change.

Some, especially supporters of the Armenian president, see a penchant
for revenge. Sarkisian, a firebrand speaker increasingly resembling his
assassinated brother, does not deny that. “Yes, I do have a personal
feud toward Robert Kocharian,” he said. “Who wouldn’t in my place?”

Emil Danielyan is a journalist based in Yerevan and a longtime
contributor to TOL and its print predecessor, Transitions.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress