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Armenia: Shootings Trial Opens In Yerevan

The long-awaited trial of five men, plus eight suspected accomplices, charged in connection with the 1999 Armenian parliament shootings has began in Yerevan today, though it was adjourned shortly afterwards. Our correspondent reports local interest in the trial is enormous, but few Armenians believe the proceedings will yield any greater understanding of who or what was behind the rampage, which led to the deaths of eight men, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.

Yerevan, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fifteen months ago the world watched in horror as five men opened fire on the Armenian parliament in Yerevan. Eight people died in the carnage, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian.

Those five, plus eight others believed to be involved in the shootings, went on trial today in what has become the biggest courtroom process in Armenia's post-Communist history.

Interest in the trial is enormous. Authorities have had to restrict access to the biggest courthouse in the capital, Yerevan. The chamber's 120 bench seats barely accommodate the security personnel, lawyers, witnesses, and reporters.

Yet, paradoxically, few in Armenia expect the court to unearth the real circumstances that led the five men, led by former journalist Nairi Hunanian, to open fire on the deputies.

The task facing Judge Samvel Uzunian and the prosecution appears simple, since the shootings took place in front of television cameras and dozens of witnesses. But the trial is not expected to find the answer to the key question still preoccupying the public: who, if anyone, masterminded the assassinations?

That Hunanian's group did not act on its own is widely accepted by state investigators, headed by Chief Military Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian. They say they will continue to look for possible "organizers" of the shootings while the trial is going on. But chances are slim that Jahangirian's team will dig up new facts.

The criminal inquiry has been mired in controversy ever since its start, with many saying that Jahangirian's investigation has been biased from the start against President Robert Kocharian. Sarkisian and Demirchian had been co-leaders of the Miasnutyun bloc, which had angered Kocharian by acting to curtail presidential powers.

The arrest in December 1999 of a close presidential aide, Aleksan Harutiunian, on charges of inciting the gunmen reinforced suspicions that somehow the president was involved. But prosecutors later failed to substantiate the charges, allowing Kocharian to regain much of the political influence that he had lost in the aftermath of the shootings.

Vahan Vartanian is a senior political correspondent for the "Hayots Ashkhar" daily. He tells RFE/RL:

"In my opinion, the investigators were biased [against Kocharian] right from the beginning. And when they decided to back off [from implicating the president] it was too late to explore other theories."

The trial is expected to bring to light many facts that until now have not been widely known. Five of the eight defendants that were not directly involved in the shootings stand accused of providing Hunanian's group with weapons and logistical support. Three others are police officers who are accused of unintentionally allowing the gunmen to smuggle Kalashnikov rifles into the parliament chamber.

The court will hear testimony from more than 100 eyewitnesses -- mostly parliamentary deputies, cabinet members, and journalists present at the time. Lawyers representing families of the murdered officials are expected to take the opportunity to accuse the prosecution of bungling the probe. The Demirchian family, in particular, will argue that Jahangirian was wrong to clear presidential aide Harutiunian and several other suspects of complicity charges.

Hunanian today will make his first public appearance since the night of the shootings, when he readily gave interviews to local TV channels while holding dozens of officials hostage. Both during the killing spree and in his pre-trial testimony, he maintained that he himself had initiated the attack to depose Armenia's corrupt government, which he holds responsible for the country's social and economic problems.

Any sensational developments at the trial could seriously affect the political situation in Armenia. Allies of the assassinated leaders have said political instability will follow if the case is not fully solved. The late speaker's son, Stepan Demirchian, declared at a recent meeting with supporters:

"This is not just the relatives' affair. This is an issue of nationwide importance. The people want this case solved."

Demirchian Jr. and others reject the suggestion the attackers acted alone and not on special orders from behind the scenes. For them the case will remain unsolved as long as prosecutors do not indict other, more influential individuals.