By Karine Kalantarian
Further hearings on the December 2002 murder of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian drew to a close on Thursday, with the main defendant insisting on his innocence and prosecutors asking an Armenian appeals court to uphold his 15-year prison sentence.
“I am not and could not have been the organizer of Tigran Naghdalian’s murder,” businessman Armen Sarkisian told the Review Court in his closing remarks, repeating allegations that the case against him was fabricated for political purposes.
Sarkisian, whose brother Aram is one of the leaders of the Armenian opposition, said the charges leveled against him are solely based on the “contradictory” pre-trial testimony given by his relative Hovannes Harutiunian nicknamed Aper. He again claimed to have been blackmailed into paying Harutiunian $75,000 shortly after Naghdalian was shot dead outside his parent’s home in Yerevan.
Aper, who has refused to speak in the court, says in his written testimony that Sarkisian commissioned the killing because he suspected Naghdalian’s involvement in the October 1999 assassination of his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
But the credibility of Aper’s claims was again questioned by another suspect who allegedly hired John Harutiunian, a Karabakh Armenian who has confessed to the shooting. The suspect, Gegham Shahbazian, again retracted his earlier testimony to investigators implicating the opposition leaders’ brother in the killing.
“John and I did the whole thing on Aper’s orders,” Shahbazian told the court. “He promised $100,000, but cheated us by giving only $44,000.”
John Harutiunian and Shahbazian were sentenced to 15 and 11 years in prison respectively by a Yerevan court of first instance in late November. Aper, for his part, got off with only seven years.
The prosecution demanded that the sentences be kept unchanged, saying that the defendants’ guilt has been proven. The November guilty verdicts were also endorsed by Naghdalian’s sister Karine who said that the punishment should have been even stricter. She also lashed out at John Harutiunian, describing him as a “traitor” and “bloodthirsty” person who could kill anyone for money.
Harutiunian reacted furiously, sounding unrepentant for the first time since the start of the court proceedings. “I am not a traitor. On the contrary, I killed a traitor,” he said. “And I killed him humanely, not brutally.”
“I distributed that money (paid for the killing) to all those guys who shed their blood to take back Karabakh and 20 percent of Azerbaijan, whereas her brother was having fun here in a jeep,” the war veteran added.
The Review Court is likely to hand down its ruling by the end of this month. Few expect it to acquit Sarkisian.