Armenia: Assembly Killings Trial Stumbles On

Three years after eight high-ranking officials were murdered in the Armenian parliament, many important questions remain unanswered.

Armenia: Assembly Killings Trial Stumbles On

Three years after eight high-ranking officials were murdered in the Armenian parliament, many important questions remain unanswered.

Thursday, 5 December, 2002

It was the most shocking crime in the history of post-Soviet Armenia. Five attackers broke into the chamber of parliament and shot eight people dead - Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, speaker Karen Demirchian, his two deputies, three assembly members and one government minister.

Yet more than three years after the October 27 parliamentary killings, almost nothing has been resolved.

The suspects - led by the former journalist and extreme nationalist Nairi Hunanian - are still on trial, no verdict has been handed down and the public is no nearer to understanding why its former political elite was annihilated in one day.

All those present in the room - besides the parliamentary deputies, the government was also in attendance - were taken hostage. Some of them were freed later in the day, while 40 people remained captive until the next morning when Hunanian's group surrendered after negotiations with President Robert Kocharian.

Overnight, Hunanian and his associates destroyed the new political leadership that had been taking shape after the parliamentary elections that May.

The Unity bloc, forged by the iron will of then-defence minister Sarkisian and the political experience of the 67-year-old former Communist Party boss Demirchian, won a majority and formed a new government. The former became prime minister and the latter was appointed speaker of parliament.

The political crisis that followed the killings was so severe that, for a while, it seemed Armenian statehood itself was under threat.

During the winter of 1999-2000 the president was on the brink of resignation, one government replaced another (three governments came and went within the space of seven months) and the army was close to a split.

The president managed to consolidate power. But the price of that has been ongoing public speculation that he was somehow complicit in the tragedy.

"It's him, I know," claimed Anoush, a middle-aged bread vendor in the northern city of Spitak, accusing Kocharian of having planned the whole thing. "But I'm not a politician and I don't want to talk about it."

However, the opposition does talk. While stopping short of accusing the president of murder, David Shakhnazarian - one of the leaders of the opposition Armenian National Movement, ANM - suggests that there is every reason to presume Kocharian personally stood to gain from the killings, for he received virtually unlimited power in the country after the event.

"The murder of the two leaders who assumed political responsibility for the country's future was in Robert Kocharian's immediate interest because he again became the country's sole leader," Shakhnazarian claimed.

Sarkisian and Demirchian had reduced the president's role to that of a figurehead, argued the ANM leader, "How long could Kocharian be content with the role of the Queen of England?"

Others believe that the mastermind of the killings - whoever he was - is still pulling strings. According to Anayit Bakhshian, the widow of murdered deputy speaker Yury Bakhshian, "One gets the impression that a certain organiser stands behind the court proceedings, and the participants simply do what they are told."

Not everyone shares her opinion. An interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claims that Hunanian's behaviour under interrogation suggested that he organised the attack alone. "He behaved like someone who wouldn't tolerate others telling him what to do," the official said.

When the trial of Hunanian and his group opened in February 2001, the legal authorities faced a challenge unique in the modern history of Armenia.

More than 90 people were listed as victims - including the prime minister and speaker - while another 129 were material witnesses, among them employees of the parliament, journalists, and security guards.

The case has attracted enormous media and public attention and Hunanian has used this opportunity to address the public directly, expounding his views on life and politics. No one else in Armenia, with the possible exception of the president, can boast of having such a privilege.

Hunanian ensured even more notoriety for himself when he dramatically declared that he wanted to run for president.

Assembly members, party leaders and government officials reacted with dismay, while Prime Minister Andranik Markarian publicly regretted that the electoral code could not be amended before the ballot to prevent Hunanian from running.

This statement - like everything else to do with October 27 - was used by the opposition for political ends.

Naira Mamikonian, a commentator with Aravot newspaper, wrote that there would be "little difference between Hunanian and the acting president - one is accused of a terrorist act, the other suspected of involvement in it. If Hunanian can register as a candidate, he will be a worthier rival for Kocharian than anyone else".

The president's office has reacted calmly to these provocative statements. "Yes, the case of October 27 is politicised," said the president's spokesman Vahe Gabrielian, "and the closer we get to the elections the more politicised it is going to get." Armenia's presidential elections are scheduled for February 19 and the campaign is already underway.

The case also has international implications for Armenia. Amnesty International has recognised Hunanian and his associates as political prisoners, and is monitoring the investigation to ensure that it follows acceptable standards and respects the ban on torture and beating.

"These extremists shouldn't hope that someone from the outside can protect them," prime minister Markarian - himself a victim of the October 27 attack - told the court. "They deserve the most severe punishment."

Many politicians are demanding the death sentence should the Hunanian group be found guilty - even though that may cost Armenia its place in the Council of Europe.

Viktor Dallakian, head of the parliamentary commission on public law, admits that the draft new criminal code would allow for Hunanian and his associates to be executed if found guilty.

The trial remains at the centre of public attention. It is still unclear when it will end - and how society will take the verdict.

"Armenia's modern history falls into two periods - before and after October 27, 1999," Anayit Bakhshian told IWPR. It is hard to argue with her.

Mark Grigorian has just taken up his former post as IWPR's Armenia coordinator after spending a year setting up the Caucasian Media Institute.

Support our journalists