YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The man whose testimony formed the basis of a politically charged murder case against the brother of radical opposition leader Aram Sarkisian has been set free after serving only half of his seven-year prison sentence–it was confirmed on Thursday.
Hovannes Harutiunian was among 13 men convicted in the December 2002 assassination of Tigran Naghdalian–former head of Armenia’s state television and radio. A court in Yerevan accepted prosecutors’ claims that younger Sarkisian’s brother Armen was the mastermind of the contract murder–sentencing him and another suspect–who confessed to shooting and killing Naghdalian–to 15 years in prison. The controversial verdict handed down in November 2003 was upheld by the Armenian appeals courts.
Armen Sarkisian–backed by his family and friends–protested his innocence throughout the year-long trial–rejecting the charges as politically motivated.
Prosecutors insisted–however–that the businessman ordered Naghdalian’s killing because he believed the state TV chief–a staunch supporter of President Robert Kocharian–had a hand in the October 1999 assassination of his second–more famous brother–Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. At the heart of their case was Harutiunian’s pre-trial testimony in which he claimed to have received $75,000 from Armen Sarkisian–a distant relative of his–to organize the crime. Sarkisian claimed that he paid the sum because he was "blackmailed" by Harutiunian shortly after the killing.
A spokeswoman for the Armenian Justice Ministry–Anahit Voskanian–told RFE/RL that Harutiunian–who allegedly had links with the criminal underworld–was released from jail on parole by the same Yerevan district court on July 12. She said this was made possible by a June 27 decree by Kocharian which reduced his jail term by 18 months.
Under Armenian criminal code–individuals convicted of "especially grave" crimes must complete at least two-thirds of their prison sentences before they can apply for parole. Kocharian’s decree meant that Harutiunian–who was arrested in January 2003–technically has spent five out of the required seven years in jail.
Harutiunian’s erratic behavior during the high-profile trial undermined the credibility of the charges leveled against Armen Sarkisian. During a court session on September 24–2003 Harutiunian said he has "something to add" to what he had told the investigators in a series of interrogations following his arrest. But the man nicknamed Aper (Brother) mysteriously refused to speak up at the next hearing a week later–saying only that he stands by his earlier written deposition. His public questioning had been repeatedly and controversially delayed by the presiding judge–Saro Aramian–fueling speculation that the Armenian authorities fear he might retract his pre-trial account.
The authorities announced the arrest of Harutiunian and five other Naghdalian murder suspects late on March 5–2003 just hours after the closure of polls in the second round of a hotly disputed presidential election. Sarkisian was arrested ten days later.
Armenia’s main opposition Justice alliance–of which his brother Aram is a leading member–denounced the arrest–saying that it is part of Kocharian’s efforts to cling to power in the wake of serious vote irregularities that marred his reelection. Justice party’s top leader Stepan Demirchian still claims to be the rightful winner of the vote.