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Armenia: Former Minister Released, But Questions Remain

Yerevan, 10 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Vano Siradeghian, Armenia's former interior minister facing murder charges, was released on Friday (May 7) from custody, raising new questions about the motives of his four-day detention. He was detained on Monday at the Yerevan airport upon his return to the country following a three-month absence.

State prosecutors suspect Siradeghian, a close associate of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, of ordering murders of two police officers five years ago when he was interior minister. Siradeghian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) deny the charges and say they are politically motivated. HHSh leaders have accused the present authorities of trying to weaken the opposition party in the run-up to parliamentary elections due on May 30.

Siradeghian tops the center-right party's list of candidates. Under Armenian law, an election candidate can not be kept in jail for more than 96 hours without the consent of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The prosecutors took no steps to turn the former minister's detention into a more lengthy arrest.

HHSh sources said he was driven by national security officers to his house in Yerevan right from a former KGB jail. It remained unclear whether the law-enforcement bodies have given up seeking Siradeghian's imprisonment before a trial or whether they plan to simply wait for the outcome of the elections. Officials in the office of prosecutor-general were not immediately available for comment.

The ex-minister, known for his often flamboyant behavior, is expected to face fresh criminal charges that will include racketeering and murder of a number of prominent public figures in the early 1990s. Former president Levon Ter-Petrossian has thrown his weight behind Siradeghian by criticizing the accusations as unfounded. Ter-Petrossian visited HHSh headquarters late yesterday in an apparent sign of solidarity with his once powerful subordinate.

Siradeghian (May 7) refused to speculate on possible reasons for his surprise detention and release. He said he is "not familiar with the [political] situation" in Armenia due to his long absence. He promised to comment in detail at a news conference next Tuesday.

Siradeghian left Armenia for Dubai (UAE) last January, just days after the murder charges were leveled against him. The government-controlled parliament lifted his immunity from prosecution in February. His aides have said he went abroad for medical treatment.

Siradeghian was greeted with applause (May 7) by several dozen supporters as he pulled up in his jeep to the HHSh building in central Yerevan. Surrounded by reporters and TV cameras, Siradeghian smiled, trying to maintain his usual casualness. However, his slightly trembling fingers, holding a cigarette, betrayed anxiety. Asked about his state of health, the HHSh chairman said: "Not bad."

Supporters of the ex-minister credit him with a successful fight against crime from 1992 to 1996. But his more numerous opponents accuse him of corruption and widespread law violations.