Chief Suspect in Cafe Murder Set to Avoid Jail

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Aghamal Harutiunian–a bodyguard of President Robert Kocharian prosecuted in connection with last year’s caf murder–looked set to avoid imprisonment as his 40-day trial on a manslaughter charge drew to a close on Tuesday.

The chief prosecutor in the trial–Eduard Sarikian–demanded a one-year suspended prison sentence for Harutiunian–citing several "mitigating circumstances" in a concluding speech before the district court in central Yerevan. The suggested punishment was condemned by relatives of Poghos Poghosian–an ethnic Armenian from Georgia who was found dead in the caf rest room early on September 25.

Sarikian repeated the official theory that the bodyguard committed a "negligent homicide" in a one-on-one brawl with Poghosian. The prosecution has effectively dismissed some witness accounts–according to which the victim was attacked by several presidential bodyguards just minutes after Kocharian left the caf with his entourage.

The presiding judge–Mnatsakan Martirosian–refused to accept a written testimony by Stephen Newton–the only eyewitness who has implicated Harutiunian in the crime. Newton–who worked for a European Union office in Armenia and was in the Aragast caf on the night from September 24 to 25–has said in a statement that Harutiunian was among several presidential guards that forced Poghosian into the toilet and beat him to death.

The judge–backed by the defendant’s defense attorney Vahan Yanikian–argued that Newton’s statement was made in absentia and is "contradictory." Yanikian demanded that his client be acquitted.

Newton–who is a British citizen–left Armenia on February 2 – one week after the court asked the authorities to establish his identity and whereabouts for possible questioning. It is not clear whether the Briton’s contract with the EU’s TACIS program was meant to expire before his departure.

European Union officials in Yerevan are unusually tight-lipped about one of their colleagues who has alleged a high-level cover-up over the violent death last September of a man in a popular Yerevan cafe widely blamed on President Robert Kocharian’s bodyguards.

Stephen Newton–a British national who worked for the EU’s TACIS program in Armenia–was in the Aragast cafe on the day of the incident and has accused presidential bodyguards of beating to death Poghos Poghosian–a 43-year-old Armenian community activist from Georgia. He has strongly challenged the official theory that Poghosian died accidentally in a fistfight with Aghamal Harutiunian – one of the guards currently facing trial on a manslaughter charge.

EU agencies in Yerevan are refusing to comment on some circumstances of Newton’s work–keeping the media guessing about reasons for his departure from Armenia earlier this month. The Briton–who advised the Armenian government on reform of public administration–left the country on February 2–one week after a Yerevan court asked the authorities to find out his identity and whereabouts.

He was still in Armenia when the foreign and interior ministries submitted an official reply on February 1 stating that they were unable to locate him. In a written statement presented to the district court on Monday and an earlier interview with Human Rights Watch–Newton said he feared for his life in the months following Poghosian’s murder.

It is not clear whether his short-term contract with TACIS was meant to expire on February 1. The European Commission’s chief representative to Armenia–Sebastien Dubost–could not be reached for comment on Monday. The head of the TACIS project which employed Newton most recently–Richard Lucking–categorically refused to answer any questions from RFE/RL. Lucking gave no explanation for the refusal.

The head of an EU office coordinating all TACIS projects in Armenia also declined a comment. An office spokeswoman claimed earlier that Newton’s contract with the EU agency had expired on October 4. But on Monday she admitted that he continued his work up until this month.

In his statement sealed by a notary from the British embassy in Yerevan–Newton says it was "fear for my life" that prompted him to leave the country one week after the cafe murder. "I stayed in the UK for two weeks and returned to Armenia after it appeared that a prosecution would go ahead without involving me," he says.

Newton cited similar concerns when he asked a researcher from Human Rights Watch not to publicize his interview given in Yerevan last December.

An employee of the Armenian School of Public Administration–where Newton had an office from November through the end of January–told RFE/RL that the Briton’s departure was unexpected. He said Newton was one of the organizers of a conference on civil service reform which took place just one week before he left for London.

Newton says he saw "between 5 and 7 of the president’s men" enter the toilet shortly before he found Poghosian lying on the floor. "It was clear to me that Poghosian had been very badly beaten around the head–probably kicked–and a large lump on his left temple–about the size of a thumb–indicated a possible blow from a pistol or similar blunt instrument?Because of the swelling you could hardly see Poghosian’s eyes–and the swelling of his face generally made it about twenty percent larger than normal."

"It was a sickening–terrible sight–the memory of which I still find deeply disturbing," Newton adds.

Forensic experts that examined Poghosian’s body also concluded that he had been badly beaten up. They told the court hearings last month that they found numerous blood-stained bruises on Poghosian’s face–hands and legs.

Harutiunian has said in his testimony that he himself was led into the toilet and assaulted by Poghosian. He said they both fell down to the floor after he gave the latter a "gentle shove" in self-defense. Harutiunian claimed that minutes before the incident he "reprimanded" Poghosian for greeting Kocharian in a way he found too familiar.

By most witness accounts–the 43-year-old resident of Georgia’s Armenian-populated Ninotsminda region uttered "Hello Rob!" as the Armenian president walked past his table together with famous French singer Charles Aznavour.

After hearing the prosecutor’s speech the victim’s brother–Andranik Poghosian–accused the law-enforcement agencies of covering up the murder. "This court is paying a lip service to the president of the republic. The end of this trial may herald the beginning of his resignation," he declared before walking out of the court room with his lawyer–Ruben Sahakian–in protest.

Sahakian’s petitions to cross-examine more witnesses–including several other Kocharian bodyguards–in the court were rejected by judge Martirosian. His verdict is expected to be announced on Wednesday.

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