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Death Row Convict Protests Innocence

For the first time in post-Soviet Armenia, a convicted murderer faces the death penalty but campaigners claim the real killers are still at large
By Jeanna Alexanian

An Armenian soldier sentenced to death for shooting five of his comrades has refused to appeal for clemency - despite substantial evidence that he could be innocent of the crime.


Artur Mkrtchian, 24, has been on death row at Nurbarashensky Prison since 1996 when he was convicted of committing the murders near the village of Koti, on the border with Azerbaijan. If the sentence is carried out, Mkrtchian will be the first convict to be executed in Armenia since the former Soviet republic won its independence.


But supporters claim that Mkrtchian, who was 19 at the time, is in fact the victim of a cover-up plot by military police officers seeking to protect the true culprits.


Mkrtchian was one of seven soldiers stationed at the Koti checkpoint on the night of June 11, 1996. According to the official version, he shot three men whilst they were sleeping in an observation trench, then burst into the nearby barrack-room and killed two more.


A seventh soldier, Vigen Tsaturian, jumped out of his bunk and managed to disarm Mkrtchian who fled into the night.


Military police investigators say that, following his arrest two weeks later, Mkrtchian made a full confession. The motive for the killings was said to be a $100 debt owed to one of the victims.


However, Mkrtchian was later transferred to an army prison where he protested his innocence and claimed that the murderers were in fact military police officers who had arrived at the border post that evening.


During his trial, the 19-year-old told the Supreme Court in Yerevan that soldiers at the post were illegally selling Kalashnikov assault rifles and the three police officers had come to investigate.


"I am telling this to the court because the chief investigator told me he knew the three men and I was afraid to say what had happened," he explained.


Mkrtchian's supporters say the Supreme Court ignored all evidence relating to the sale of arms at the Koti border post. Claims that 11,000 bullets went missing from the armoury were denied by the company commander, Melik Melikian - who was jailed for three years in a separate trial and later released under an amnesty.


The court also heard that another soldier, who was transferred from the Koti border post a week before the killings, was subsequently found murdered. The post itself was closed down shortly after the incident.


Mkrtchian's defence lawyer pointed out that no traces of blood were found on the defendant's clothes whilst tests showed blood from four of the five dead men on Tsaturian's uniform. Tsaturian, he added, only reported the shootings two hours after they took place.


Furthermore, according to the defence, three bullets and seven empty cartridge-cases were retrieved from the murder scene - but one of the cases was ejected from a weapon that has never been found.


Mkrtchian's family has complained they were subjected to brutal interrogations by military police during the investigation. The suspect's brother was arrested and detained for three months, during which time, according to relatives, he was beaten and tortured.


Mkrtchian's father was also arrested and subsequently charged with bribing his son's commanding officer - he allegedly gave him a tape recorder in return for a few days' leave. Mkrtchian senior was jailed for three years and his wife suffered a miscarriage.


Mkrtchian was defended by two lawyers - one appointed by the prosecutor's office and the other hired by relatives. The latter was only given permission to see his client on a single occasion.


Even the victims' relatives consider that Mkrtchian's guilt has never been proven. The father of one told IWPR, "We were never convinced that Artur Mkrtchian was the culprit and I don't want another innocent man to suffer."


The mother of another victim, who has been lobbying various organisations for the past four years in a bid to uncover the truth, said, "I don't accept that Artur Mkrtchian could have taken the lives of five other soldiers."


However Gagik Djangirian, the chief military prosecutor, said there were "no grounds for an appeal against the court's decision," adding, "The prosecutor's office has been instructed to continue the investigation and to make a report in the near future."


Djangirian visited Mkrtchian in prison - a meeting which the prisoner later described in a letter to his lawyer. "Our conversation lasted around 20-30 minutes," he said. "He asked me if an argument could have broken out over some large sum of money or drugs deal. He believes that only these factors could have led to such a tragedy. Who's going to believe that the shooting was triggered by a $100 debt?"


Jeanna Alexanian is an independent journalist in Yerevan


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