By Karine Kalantarian
An Armenian appeals court upheld Tuesday a 15-year prison sentence against the brother of opposition leader Aram Sarkisian, dismissing as “not credible” his vigorous denial of any involvement in the 2002 killing of state television chief Tigran Naghdalian.
The Review Court also confirmed guilty verdicts passed on other key suspects by a Yerevan court of first instance in late November. Only one of the defendants had his jail term shortened from seven to five years by the panel of three judges.
The widely anticipated ruling was read out in a tightly guarded courtroom packed with journalists, the victim’s relatives and supporters of businessman Armen Sarkisian. The latter reacted furiously, interrupting the presiding judge with angry shouts and staying seated in protest.
“You have no right to speak in the name of the Republic of Armenia,” one of them shouted.
The court found “credible” the pre-trial testimonies by Hovannes Harutiunian and other top defendants, which are at the heart of prosecutors’ case against Sarkisian. “The testimonies make sense, are mutually related and stem from evidence collected during the criminal investigation and contained in this verdict,” it said.
Sarkisian’s defense team claims the opposite, saying all suspects except Harutiunian, nicknamed Aper, have retracted testimony implicating their client in the murder during the court hearings. Among them is Gegham Shahbazian, the man who allegedly hired two hitmen in Nagorno-Karabakh in return for $100,000 promised by Aper.
One of the Karabakh residents, John Harutiunian, has admitted to shooting Naghdalian dead on a freezing evening on December 29, 2002. The other man, Felix Arustamian, is said to have pulled out of the plot at the last minute.
“John and I did the whole thing on Aper’s orders,” Shahbazian told the court last week. “He promised $100,000, but cheated us by giving only $44,000.”
Sarkisian claims to have been blackmailed by Aper in the weeks that followed the Naghdalian’s killing and paid the latter a total of $75,000, fearing for the safety and reputation of his family — one of the most prominent in Armenia. He says his only guilt was not informing police before his arrest last March.
The Review Court, however, found the explanation unconvincing, accepting the prosecution’s claims that the top defendant commissioned the crime because he felt that Naghdalian had a hand in the 1999 assassination of his second brother, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
The family of the late TV chief, who was an ardent supporter of President Robert Kocharian, also considers Sarkisian guilty and says the he deserved a tougher punishment. Naghdalian’s sister Karine on Tuesday renewed her allegations that Aram Sarkisian and other Armenian opposition leaders were also involved in the crime.
The oppositionists, for their part, insist that the charges against Armen Sarkisian are politically motivated and are part of Kocharian’s efforts to discredit his opponents. Their view is shared by some of the trial attorneys.
Zaruhi Postanjian, representing Arustamian, said: “The Armenian judiciary is under the strong influence of the executive branch. Our legislation allows for that.”
Postanjian and Sarkisian’s defense team said they will appeal to the Court of Appeals, the highest body of criminal justice in Armenia.