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Armenia: Former Interior Minister Faces Murder Charges

Yerevan, 4 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Vano Siradeghian, Armenia's former interior minister facing murder charges, was detained yesterday immediately after his surprise return from a three-month exile. He was apprehended by law-enforcement officers at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport as he disembarked from a flight from the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

His wife and child faced no obstacles while passing through the VIP lounge. Another person accompanying Siradeghian told besieging reporters that the former minister was approached on the tarmac by two men asking him "politely" to follow them.

Siradeghian, who is one of the closest associates of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, left Armenia for Dubai (UAE) in late January after state prosecutors had accused him of ordering murders of two police officers while in power.

Siradeghian and his center-right Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) have dismissed the charges as politically motivated. According to a senior HHSh member, the ex-minister will be kept in custody for 72 hours as required by Armenian law.

With Siradeghian standing as a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, the prosecutors need the approval of two thirds of Central Election Commission members to turn the detention into a permanent arrest. Armenia's election law gives candidates immunity from prosecution during the election campaign. The CEC is dominated by supporters of President Robert Kocharian. Also likely to vote for the ex-minister's arrest are a few other opposition parties, represented in the 13-strong body.

Ararat Zurabian, the HHSh's deputy chairman, said the prosecutors have promised him to "consider" Siradeghian's release from custody if the opposition party files a written request guaranteeing its leader will remain in Armenia.

Siradeghian's arrest angered dozens of HHSh activists who gathered at the airport to give a red-carpet reception to their leader, known for his flamboyant behavior. Many of them later stood outside the prosecutor's office in Yerevan as Zurabian and other party leaders were given explanations inside the building.

The HHSh came to power in 1990 following the first democratic elections ending 70 years of Communist rule in Armenia. But it was finally ousted from government in February 1998 with the resignation of Ter-Petrossian, its unofficial leader. Ter-Petrossian's eight-year rule was marked with Armenian military victories in Nagorno-Karabakh and a drastic decline in living standards resulting from the conflict with Azerbaijan and collapse of the command economy.

The party is now struggling to surmount a five percent vote barrier in the May 30 polls to keep a minimum representation in the parliament. The charges leveled against Siradeghian have substantially toughened the HHSh's attitude toward the present authorities. In a gesture of defiance, Siradeghian was recently reelected party chairman. But the move has also exacerbated inner-party divisions, with most of the HHSh's veteran figures increasingly distancing themselves from the ex-minister.

Siradeghian served as interior minister from 1992 to 1996, a period characterized by a pervasive police influence in Armenia. Supporters credit him with a successful combating of crime, whereas the more numerous opponents accuse him of corruption and widespread breaches of the law.