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Armenia: Parliament Massacre Still A Mystery Three Years Later

Armenia has marked the third anniversary of the bloody seizure of its parliament with low-key government ceremonies and fresh opposition allegations of an official cover-up of the crime. On 27 October 1999, the world watched in horror the videotaped assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other senior officials attending a session of the Armenian parliament. Five gunmen who sprayed the assembly with bullets have been on trial since the beginning of last year. The protracted court proceedings have so far not provided an answer to the key question asked by Armenians: Who was the mastermind behind the massacre?

Yerevan, 28 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nairi Hunanian can be a serious political factor, even behind bars. The 36-year-old former journalist continues to shape developments in Armenia three years after he led four armed men into a brazen terrorist attack that all but decapitated the country's leadership.

Hunanian's self-confident behavior at the gunmen's ongoing 20-month trial is a major irritant for the relatives and friends of the assassinated leaders. For them, justice will not be done until the authorities identify other, presumable masterminds of the bloodbath -- something which may never happen.

Hunanian maintains that the decision to storm the parliament was entirely his, saying that the gunmen simply wanted to topple a regime that had plunged the country into poverty. He says the assailants did not intend to kill anyone and hoped that their action would provoke a popular revolt against the authorities.

The gunmen, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, took advantage of poor security in and around the parliament building to burst into its main auditorium and unleash a hail of automatic gunfire. They then took hostage several dozen parliamentary deputies and government members before surrendering to law-enforcement authorities 18 hours later.

Television footage of the drama as well as numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that the gunmen primarily targeted then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian. The two men were also leaders of the Miasnutiun (Unity) alliance which won parliamentary elections held in May 1999, five months before the attack.

The Miasnutiun victory significantly limited President Robert Kocharian's powers, with Sarkisian increasingly emerging as Armenia's most powerful man.

Not surprisingly, the late prime minister's comrades-in-arms accuse the president himself of orchestrating the parliament attack. Albert Bazeyan, a former mayor of Yerevan and now leader of the opposition Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party, is one of them. Speaking at an opposition rally on 25 October dedicated to the third anniversary of the killings, he charged: "We have come to the conclusion that the crime was aimed at making Robert Kocharian's power unlimited and uncontrolled. By physically eliminating Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian, its organizers wanted to create prerequisites for Kocharian's victory in the future presidential elections."

This was the main theory explored by state prosecutors in the initial stages of their criminal investigation. In early 2000, they were close to personally implicating Kocharian in the killings but backed down for an apparent lack of evidence. This, in turn, predetermined Kocharian's victory in a seven-month power struggle with pro-Sarkisian government factions that followed the parliament shootings.

The Armenian leader has since further reinforced his hold on power and is now well-placed to win a second term in office in next February's presidential election. He has repeatedly indicated his belief that Hunanian's gang acted alone.

The gunmen's long-running trial, which began in February 2001, has not brought to light any major evidence to the contrary, reinforcing the dominant belief that the case has not been solved.

Most of the blame is laid on the investigators, led by Chief Military Prosecutor Gagik Djahangirian. Even the gunmen's lawyers accuse them of bungling the inquiry. Karapet Aghajanian, who defends another key defendant, Edik Grigorian, says, "They [the prosecutors] are not at all interested in finding out the causes of that crime or establishing whether such things can be repeated in the future."

Adding to the frustration of the victims' relatives is Hunanian's aggressive and unrepentant conduct. Recently, he announced his intention to run for president -- a clear public-relations stunt that nonetheless caused a stir.

Ashot Sargsian is a lawyer representing Demirchian's family at the trial. He said: "He [Hunanian] is doing everything to politicize the trial. This is his only goal. This was also his goal on 27 October 1999."

Hunanian is also at the center of the Armenian government's dispute with the Council of Europe over the abolition of the death penalty. The Armenian parliament approved this summer a new Criminal Code that, while formally abolishing capital punishment, allows the execution of the parliament gunmen.

That was done in line with the demands of the close relatives of the assassinated leaders. The widow of the late parliament speaker, Rima Demirchian, expressed their shared opinion when she declared recently: "We are fighting for a fair verdict: a death sentence. We are fighting for consoling the nationwide sorrow."

However, the Council of Europe finds any exceptions from the rule unacceptable. Its Parliamentary Assembly warned last month that Armenia could face serious sanctions if it fails to completely and unconditionally remove the death penalty from its books by June 2003.

President Kocharian appears to agree with the Strasbourg-based organization's position, but has avoided putting pressure on the lawmakers so far. Not least because that would deepen the lingering suspicions about his role in the bloody drama that is still reverberating on the Armenian political scene.