Parliament Rejects Lifting Siradeghian Immunity; Prosecutor General Links More Murders to Ex Minister

YEREVAN (RFE/RL–Noyan Tapan)–By a vote of 65 to 56–Armenia’s National Assembly Tuesday rejected a request by Armenia’s Prosecutor General to lift the parliamentary immunity of former interior minister Vano Siradeghian–a warrant for whose arrest on murder charges was announced by law enforcement agencies Monday. Of the 190 members of parliament 24 abstained and 19 parliamentarian opted not to vote.

Prior to the vote–Prosecutor Genera Aghvan Hovsepian–who in great length presented the case against Siradeghian–once again addressed the National Assembly–saying that his office had enough evidence against the former leader to prosecute him.

Hovsepian also added that his office had ample evidence to link Siradeghian with the murders of the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Artashat District–ARF member Hovannes Sukiasian–his drive Varoujan Abrahamian–chief of the railroad department Hambartsum Ghandilian–retired General Zhora Isahakian and his driver Hakob Onikian.

In a lenghthy report to parliament Monday–Hovsepian charged Siradeghian with the plotting of the 1993 assassination attempt on Russian-Armenian businessman Serj Jilavian in Moscow [See page 10 for detailed acccount of Hovsepian presentaion]. With the failure of the plot–the two interior ministry officials who carried out the attempt were subsequently kidnapped and later shot to death per Siradeghian’s orders–charged Hovsepian.

Hovsepian said Monday that the officers were shot dead in January 1994 at the orders of then interior minister Siradeghian for failing to assassinate Jilavian–who was at odds with the former authorities in Yerevan.

Hovsepian said the murdered policemen were part of an Armenian interior ministry group dispatched to Moscow in December 1993 to assassinate Jilavian. He said their bodies were recovered last summer in a Yerevan suburb.

Siradeghian on Tuesday again dismissed the charges–saying that they were "fabricated" for political purposes. He repeated claims that the main witness in the case–the former interior troops commander Vahan Harutiunian–is "mentally sick," and his testimony can not substantiate the accusations. The ex-commander was arrested last summer and–according to the prosecutors–admitted being the main instrument in carrying out Siradeghian’s alleged death orders.

The chief prosecutor countered that Harutiunian is not insane. He insisted that the case is "purely criminal" and shrugged off what he called "political speculations."There are sufficient proven facts and Siradeghian has been unable to present convincing argumen’s against them," said the prosecutor-general.

The outcome of Tuesday’s voting was mainly decided by the lack of unity in the majority Yerkrapah faction loyal to President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan. Yerkrapah leader Albert Bazeyan said the "majority" in the faction supports Siradeghian’s prosecution–but admitted that others disagreed.

"Since there are serious charges [against Siradeghian] the issue must go to court. The National Assembly is not a place for shelter," Bazeyan said. Another senior Yerkrapah said the faction did not come up with a common position on the issue.

Of 165 deputies present at the debates–25 abstained and 20 did not vote. Only 56 law-makers voted for the former interior minister’s arrest. "I am dissatisfied because the prosecutor’s office was not permitted to carry out its duties. Those who have committed the crimes are now in jail but their main organizer has not yet been brought to justice," Hovsepian told reporters after the voting. "We will definitely continue to interrogate Siradeghian."

Hovsepian declined to say whether Siradeghian will be arrested if he is not re-elected to the next parliament this summer. "I was confident that common sense will win," Siradeghian said. He added that the deputies thereby rebuffed a "political order personally made by Robert Kocharian," and prevented more such arrests.

Last year–Siradeghian was twice interrogated by law-enforcement officials in connection with a group of men arrested in January 1998 on charges of murder and robber. The prosecutors say the "criminal gang" was led by Armen Ter-Sahakian who worked in the interior ministry at a time when it was headed by Siradeghian.

In his presentation prior to the voting–Hovsepian reiterated that his office had enough evidence to bring charges against Vano Siradeghian and that the evidence should be judged in court.

He made it clear that if the deputies rejected the petition–only the executors would be put on trial while the organizer would go unpunished. "The fundamental principles of criminal legislation–the inevitability of punishment and universal equality before the law–will be violated in our state–and we have no right to let it happen," Hovsepian underscored.

The prosecutor asked the deputies not to turn his petition into a subject for political speculations and not to connect it with other issues. The statement followed some deputy speeches attaching political color to the move.

In Hovsepian’s judgment–this was a purely criminal case and that Siradeghian’s unconvincing speech in Parliament a day earlier had nothing to do with the charges brought against him–but managed to give a political character to the matter.

According to the prosecutor–Siradeghian described Vahan Haroutiunian as an insane person that tried to dodge responsibility by unmasking him as a criminal. Hovsepian said they had made a close study of the personality of Vahan Haroutiunian finding no reason to consider him insane. Moreover–Vano Siradeghian appointed Vahan Haroutiunian to different posts–including the post of deputy minister.

In response to the inquiries of some deputies about the gang of the arrested Armen Ter-Sahakian–Hovsepian said the case was under investigation and he was not entitled to reveal any information.

According Hovsepian–there is enough proof that the murders of chairman of the Executive Committee of the Artashat District Council Hovhannes Sukiassian–his driver Varuzhan Abrahamian–chief of the railroad department Hambartsum Ghandilian–retired General Zhora Isahakian and driver Hakob Onikian were committed through the gang of Ter-Sahakian. Also–the gang made an attempt on the lives of the chief of the investigatory department of the Prosecutor’s Office Vladimir Grigorian and his driver Artur Hakobian. The Prosecutor’s Office is continuing to look into these episodes.

According to the prosecutor–there are enough facts proving that the gang of Armen Ter-Sahakian was formed in the system of the Ministry of the Interior as an illegal structure under the name of "intelligence group." This group was issued certificates and weapons.

"All these were done by Vano Siradeghian. The gang operated in conditions of impunity and committed many heavy crimes. The case is under investigation and that’s why I can’t yet present a petition for the arrest of the persons involved in these crimes," Hovsepian concluded.

"Our society stands no chances to recover as long as the ordered murders remain untried," Speaker Khosrov Haroutiunian said at a meeting of Parliament Tuesday.

The Parliament should agree to criminal proceedings against Vano Siradeghian–Haroutiunian said. He also called to put to vote the motion on initiating criminal proceedings against Siradeghian but not arresting him. "The National Assembly should allow the settlement of disputes in court," he said.

The speaker also pointed out that the political speculations in deputies’ speeches only add to the problem. Commenting on the possible dissolution of Parliament–Haroutiunian said the issue had lost its topicality.

"This releases only one feeling–bitterness," member of the National-Democratic Union faction Shavarsh Kocharian said–commenting on the Prosecutor General’s petition to put Vano Siradeghian on trial.

Speaking on behalf of the faction–he stressed–that "if there are suspicions–if there are facts about a murder–then each of us must help in revealing the murder."

Shavarsh Kocharian noted that there have been numerous crimes of which the entire society is aware and into which no criminal proceedings have been instituted. These include abuses in the energy sector in 1993-1994–multiple murders–the Armentel and the Yerevan Brandy Factory deals–"as well as a heavy crime eyewitnessed by many–committed against the state and termed as coup d’etat." S. Kocharian referred to the "crime" of the presidential election of 1996 and the events that followed–for which Vano Siradeghian–Serge Sargssian–Vazgen Sargssian and Robert Kocharian should be held responsible.

According to him–"the system is getting more and more vulgar–primitive and murderous."

Kocharian voiced confidence that there is only one way out of the situation: to seek a support from the population.

"The people should come around. One can’t expect that such judicial proceedings will solve the problem. Even if we gun down Siradeghian–the life in the country will not improve–and there will be no guarantees against new murders," Shavarsh Kocharian noted.

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