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Armenian Police Hunt Missing Minister

Armenia's former interior minister, the notorious Vano Siradeghian, skips bail as his murder trial enters its sixth month.
By Mark Grigorian

A prominent Armenian politician -- accused of masterminding a series of murder plots -- has mysteriously vanished in the midst of a much-publicised show trial.

Vano Siradeghian, 54, former interior minister and mayor of Yerevan, is thought to have fled the country last week. Police are investigating two conflicting sightings at a Georgian border crossing and at Yerevan airport.

A close ally of Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, Siradeghian made his first court appearance last November. His trial has been hailed as the final exorcism of the old regime which many believe was synonymous with repression, arbitrary killings and flagrant abuse of power.

Together with 11 co-defendants, Siradeghian has been charged with conspiring to murder two police officers, Karen Rafaelian and Artur Hovannisian, in 1994. Both men were allegedly shot in a country dacha for failing to assassinate Serge Jilavian, a wealthy Armenian living in Moscow.

Prosecutors also claim that the Armenian National Movement leader ordered the deaths of five prominent figures including Hovanes Sukiasian, a local government dignitary, and railway chief Hambartsum Ghandilian, shot dead in 1992 and 1993 respectively.

Sayad Shirinian, head of the interior ministry's public information department, said, "All possible measures are being taken to track down Vano Siradeghian."

Friends and family have remained tight-lipped. His lawyer, Vanya Sukiasian announced on April 4 that his client had gone into hiding. Later that day, Siradeghian's wife, Ruzan Tonoian, said, "I am asking for an official statement regarding my husband's whereabouts."

Siradeghian was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in February last year when charges were first brought against him. On that occasion, he fled abroad to the United Arab Emirates, returning only in May 1999 for the parliamentary elections. He was promptly arrested.

Following Siradeghian's most recent disappearing act, Armenia's political leaders have been quick to speak out against the man who was once the most feared power-broker in the former Soviet republic.

MP Gurgen Yeghiazarian, who investigators say was the next name on Siradeghian's hit list, says the interior minister conducted a ruthless purge of his enemies. "In the old days, human life wasn't worth a dime," said Yeghiazarian. "These men, who were supposed to prevent and solve crimes, became murderers themselves."

Hayk Babukhanian, of the parliamentary bloc Right and Accord, believes the Vano case reflects an attempt by the Armenian government to come to terms with its recent past - to understand "how we destroyed the state with our own hands".

Some regard Siradeghian as one of the architects of post-Soviet Armenia. In a 1996 interview, Ter-Petrosian credited him with crushing criminal elements and bringing order to the country.

But Marina Kurkchiyan, an expert on post-Soviet transitions at Oxford, argues that the former interior minister was part of a corrupt and immoral regime. "Those who created the present system should be standing trial with Vano. They all believed that power was more important than any moral values.

"One should remember that Vano was not alone. His close associates included Vazgen Sarkisian, Levon Ter-Petrosian, parliamentary speaker Babken Ararktsian, security minister David Shahnazarian and others."

This view is echoed by Yerevan businessman Ashot Muradian, "Certainly, all the country's former leaders should be on trial together with Vano. But the others remain unpunished. I think it's a good thing that he has fled abroad. The existing regime is the same as the old one: the judges are no different to those on trial."

Michael Danielyan, chairman of the Helsinki Association in Armenia, is even more outspoken, "Vano was one of the most odious figures of the Ter-Petrosian regime. People believe that all the worst elements of the previous government emanated from Vano."

Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project editor in Yerevan

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