Ex-Minister in Armenian 'Show Trial'

The trial in Armenia of a former interior minister appears to be satisfying the public's hunger for political scapegoats.

Ex-Minister in Armenian 'Show Trial'

The trial in Armenia of a former interior minister appears to be satisfying the public's hunger for political scapegoats.

Flanked by two impassive security guards as he sits in the dock, Vano Siradeghian, 52, is pale and subdued - barely recognisable as the flamboyant interior minister, who, just two years ago, was one of Armenia's most powerful men.


His hands tremble visibly and his voice falters under the relentless cross-examinations. Occasionally, he flinches at the muttered insults hurled across from the public benches.


Behind Siradeghian, 11 co-defendants stare out between the bars of their iron cage. They seem grimly aware that public opinion is set firmly against them in a largely one-sided trial seen as part of a drive by President Robert Kocharian's government to discredit the previous regime, headed by Levon Ter-Petrosian from 1991-98.


The 12 men stand accused of conspiring to murder two police officers, Karen Rafaelian and Artur Hovannisian, in 1994. Prosecutors also claim that Siradeghian 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.


In a nation desperately searching for political scapegoats, the Vano trial has been the focus of intense public interest for the past four months. It comes as Kocharian himself struggles for political survival as an investigation into the assassination of eight Armenian politicians last October looks set to implicate members of his inner circle. [See "Armenian President Faces Resignation Calls," Mark Grigorian, CRS No. 16, 28-Jan-00]


The Yerevan court has been told that, in January 1994, Siradeghian, ordered two serving police officers to assassinate Serge Jilavian, a wealthy Armenian living in Moscow who had previously crossed swords with Ter-Petrosian's administration. According to the prosecution, the murder plot was foiled when the hitmen were arrested by Russian police and flown back to Yerevan.


It was then that Siradeghian allegedly instructed his deputy, Vahan Harutiunian, commander of the Interior Ministry troops, to "execute" the would-be assassins in punishment for the fiasco. Harutiunian and a squad of 10 men are said to have shot the two police officers in a country dacha outside the Armenian capital.


Last week, Harutiunian confirmed this version of events under cross-examination. But Siradeghian dismissed the testimony on the grounds that it was "extracted under duress" by police investigators.


A leading light in the Armenian National Movement (ANM), the former interior minister has claimed the charges against him are politically motivated since investigators asked the National Assembly to waive his immunity from prosecution a year ago. Three weeks before a ruling was made, Siradeghian left Armenia for Dubai, ostensibly to receive medical treatment, and was arrested on his return to Yerevan in May.


Former President Ter-Petrosian has also condemned the case against Siradeghian, who was one of his most trusted associates.


But the prosecution has brought a stream of persuasive witnesses to the stand.


"I'm scared of Vano, I'm sure he killed my son," said Mayis Rafaelian, father of one of the dead policemen.


Seated a few yards behind Siradeghian, Rafaelian has been a permanent fixture at the court proceedings, volubly joining in the hostile chorus of insults directed at the former minister.


Media coverage of the Vano Trial has been largely one-sided, with pro-Kocharian state television taking every opportunity to reiterate the charges levelled at the 12 defendants. The press bias has come under fire from Tigran Janoyan, until recently Siradeghian's defence counsel, who complains that the accused have little chance of getting a fair trial.


"As a specialist, I would say that the trial of Vano Siradeghian is bordering on the absurd," he said.


However, Siradeghian still enjoys unquestioning support from his own ANM party and from members of his Noyemberian constituency in northern Armenia. When Siradeghian was re-elected to parliament in May 1998, Noyemberi villagers feted his campaign victory by slaughtering sheep and holding a celebratory feast.


Siradeghian's most powerful ally, Armenian prime-minister Vazgen Sarkisian, was among the political figures gunned down when five assassins burst into the parliament building in October last year.


Siradeghian first came to prominence in Yerevan's intellectual circles as a talented fiction writer. His political career was launched on the back of the 1988 movement to unite Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. By 1990, with the republic's first democratic elections, Siradeghian was a leading figure in the ANM, which embraced the unification issue at the heart of its manifesto.


Within two years, Siradeghian was Minister of the Interior, notorious across the country for his cynical rhetoric and parade-ground swagger. However, rumours of police oppression, fraud and corruption dogged his term of office with political rivals claiming that the minister built up a vast personal fortune at the expense of a downtrodden nation.


On one notorious occasion, Siradeghian threw a lavish party for army and police chiefs who had helped crush a riot in the streets of Yerevan. The demonstrators were protesting against the results of the 1996 presidential election, which saw Ter-Petrosian score a dramatic victory over rival Vazgen Manukian. The interior minister was later to admit openly that the vote was rigged in Ter-Petrosian's favour.


Emil Danielyan is a correspondent for RFE/RL in Yerevan.


Karabakh, Armenia
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