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Armenia: Parliament Refuses To Lift Former Minister's Immunity

Yerevan, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Armenian parliament yesterday refused to allow the prosecution and arrest of a former interior minister on murder charges.

The National Assembly voted 65 to 56 against an appeal by the prosecutor general to strip Vano Siradeghian of his parliamentary immunity for allegedly ordering murders of two police officers while in office.

Siradeghian is the chairman of the center-right Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), which has the second largest faction in parliament. The party lost its ruling status in February 1998 after its unofficial leader, then president Levon Ter-Petrossian, was forced to resign by his key ministers, who were led by then prime minister and current President Robert Kocharian.

Deputies from the HHSh yesterday unanimously condemned the charges as politically motivated. Babken Ararktsian, chairman of the HHSh-controlled Republic faction, said the authorities aim was, in his words, to "break up the party" and "remove it from the campaign" for upcoming parliamentary elections.

The outcome of yesterday�s voting was mainly decided by the lack of unity in the majority Yerkrapah faction loyal to Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. Yerkrapah leader Albert Bazeyan said the majority in the faction supports Siradeghian's prosecution but admitted that others disagreed.

Bazeyan said "since there are serious charges [against Siradeghian] the issue must go to court," adding "the National Assembly is not a place for shelter."

Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepian charged yesterday that the officers were shot dead in January 1994 at the orders of then interior minister Siradeghian for failing to assassinate an Armenian-born Russian businessman. The businessman, Serge Jilavian, was reportedly at odds with the former authorities in Yerevan.

Hovsepian said the murdered policemen were part of an Armenian interior ministry group sent to Moscow in December 1993 to assassinate Jilavian. He said their bodies were recovered last summer in a Yerevan suburb.

Siradeghian yesterday again dismissed the charges, saying they were "fabricated" for political purposes. He repeated claims that the main witness in the case, former interior troops commander Vahan Harutiunian, is, in his words, "mentally sick" and his testimony can not substantiate the accusations.

The ex-commander was arrested last summer. Prosecutors say he admitted playing the key role in carrying out Siradeghian's alleged death orders. Hovsepian has said that Harutiunian is not insane. He insisted the case is "purely criminal" and shrugged off what he called "political speculations."

Hovsepian said: "There are sufficient proven facts and Siradeghian has been unable to present convincing arguments against them."

Siradeghian served as interior minister from 1992 to 1996. Our correspondent says he has grown particularly critical of the current authorities in recent months. He has also charged that Ter-Petrossian gained a second presidential term in 1996 by manipulating votes.

In a speech in parliament yesterday, Siradeghian suggested that he is being targeted by politicians from Nagorno-Karabakh, whom he suggested are playing too large a role in Armenian politics.

President Kocharian is among political leaders who originated in Azerbaijan's mostly ethnic-Armenian breakaway region.

(Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based contributor to RFE/RL.)