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Armenia: Mystery Still Surrounds Armenian Parliament Slaughter

One year ago today (Friday), gunmen broke into the Armenian parliament and -- as video cameras recorded their actions -- murdered its speaker, the country's prime minister, and six other government officials. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan that, although the killers were quickly apprehended, the key question for many remains: Who was behind the bloodbath?

Yerevan, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The answer to who was behind last year's parliamentary shootings in Armenia may never be known.

When five gunmen -- led by a former journalist, Nairi Hunania -- surrendered to police 18 hours after seizing the parliament and killing eight officials, solving the crime seemed merely a matter of time. The evidence was abundant and the murderers admitted their guilt.

But Armenian military prosecutors investigating the case have so far been unable to substantiate their chief suspicion -- that the gunmen had influential backers who hoped to stage a coup d'etat. Hunanian and the four other arrested men will go on trial later this year or early next year, and the investigators will continue to search for those they believe masterminded the killings. Because few Armenians believe that Hunanian's gang acted independently, the inquiry will be considered incomplete as long as the "organizers" are not identified.

Several other hypotheses about the origin of the crime have been circulating in Armenia over the past year. According to one, the terrorist attack was the work of President Robert Kocharian, whose once sweeping powers were curtailed by two of the murdered officials, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian. The two men's Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc had won a landslide victory in May 1999 parliamentary elections.

Miasnutyun leaders, as well as the relatives and friends of the victims, suspected Kocharian from the outset. The later arrest of several people close to the president on charges of complicity in the shootings reinforced their suspicion. And politically, the growing mistrust between Kocharian and the Miasnutyun-controlled government and parliament kept Armenia's leadership in disarray for the next six months.

The in-fighting ended five months ago with a victory for Kocharian. The president dismissed Aram Sarkisian, the slain prime minister's brother and successor, and replaced him with a more loyal figure. Other foes of the president were also ousted from the government, leaving the once formidable anti-Kocharian alliance in tatters.

The outcome of the power struggle was largely determined by the failure of military prosecutors to establish a link between Kocharian and the gunmen. A month after Aram Sarkisian was fired, Presidential adviser Aleksan Harutiunian and three other men arrested in the wake of the massacre in parliament were set free and cleared of all charges.

Even without evidence to support it, suspicion about Kocharian's involvement in the murders persists. Many believe it will dog the president for the rest of his political life simply because he now has more power than he did before 27 October 1999.

Theories about the involvement of foreign powers in the parliament murders are also popular in Armenia. Some observers suggest Russia may have had a hand in the tragedy. They argue that it took place at a time when a deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan on ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was close to completion. They say such a deal may not have pleased Moscow.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had discussed a possible Karabakh settlement in Yerevan with Kocharian and then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian only hours before the gunmen burst into the parliament chamber. The ensuing turmoil in Armenia made any further progress in peace talks impossible.

But pro-Russian groups in Armenia have an entirely different theory. They say the murdered Miasnutyun leaders favored closer ties with Moscow, and therefore the West must have had an interest in removing them from the political scene.

All these hypotheses are highly speculative and unsupported by any evidence so far turned up in the official investigation.

In fact, little progress has been made by the investigating team, led by chief military prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian. Already discredited by allegations of widespread mistreatment of detained suspects, the controversial Jahangirian has been unable to make good on his pledge to find those who masterminded the attack.

In addition, Jahangirian is not trusted by either Kocharian or by those loyal to the slain Miasnutyun leaders. Kocharian is said to be unforgiving of what he considers Jahangirian's early attempts to implicate him in the case. And this week, Aram Sarkisian described Jahangirian as a "cowardly person" intent on confining the inquiry to the five gunmen.

The growing frustration of the victims' relatives was summed up by Rima Demirchian, the wife of the late speaker, who accused the investigators of "duping the public." On Tuesday (Oct 24), she told reporters: "I cannot blame anybody. That would be immoral because I have no evidence to say that this or that person did it. But I do feel that forces which committed the crime continue to act."

Hunanian, the arrested gang leader, maintains what he said at the outset -- that he had no backers and that the aim of the murders was to rid Armenia of what he calls its "corrupt elite." Hunanian says he hoped the assault on the parliament would set off a popular revolt forcing Kocharian to name him prime minister.

But Aram Sarkisian believes that the Hunanian is lying. Sarkisian says:

"I am absolutely sure that Nairi Hunanian is not insane. Only a mentally ill person could believe that the president would appoint him prime minister after he killed the speaker of the parliament and the prime minister."

Many Armenians agree with this argument. And few of them expect the truth about the tragedy to emerge at the upcoming trial.