Free At Last: Struggle to prove soldiers’ innocence ends with surprise victory in court

The end of 2006 was marked by an unprecedented event in Armenia’s judicial system.

The Court of Cassation decided on December 22 to release Razmik Sargsyan, Arayik Zalyan and Musa Serobyan from prison, three years after they received a life sentence on charges of murdering two soldiers.

“It is the first time in the 15-year existence of the Republic of Armenia that the court has overturned verdicts of the first instance court and the court of appeal and immediately released from prison those sentenced to the highest measure,” says defense counsel Zaruhi Postanjyan.

“It was a victory of justice and the result of three years of hard work by a whole public group.”

The Court of Cassation Chairman Hovhannes Manukyan told ArmeniaNow that there was no verdict of acquittal yet. At present, only the detention has been changed and the case will be sent back for additional investigation.

“I assess this as a decision equal to an acquittal. The pressure of the prosecutor’s office, because of which we failed to achieve success for three years, still has rather great influence today and that’s why the ruling has no clear wording about an acquittal,” says Postanjyan.

“But we will achieve that too, since these men are not guilty.”

The case centers on the deaths in January 2004 of servicemen Hovsep Mkrtumyan and Roman Yeghiazaryan. Their bodies were found in the reservoir of the village of Mataghis in Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Injuries visible on the bodies led investigators to suspect murder.

After a five-day interrogation, during which he says he was tortured, Razmik Sargsyan admitted murdering his two fellow soldiers in Karabakh in December 2003. Zalyan and Serobyan were convicted on the basis of his confession.

Their lawyers asserted in both court hearings that testimony had been extracted from their clients through torture and violence. They and members of the defendants’ families asserted that the three men had been made scapegoats to cover up the involvement of the unit commander Ivan Grigoryan.

“There is ample evidence that leads to the command of the military unit, but it was overlooked. Other officials of the command staff who, like Ivan Grigoryan, continue their service in the same military unit also have a connection to the murders,” Postanjyan says.

According to the lawyer, a charge was brought against Grigoryan, but he avoided prosecution through the intervention of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan.

In 2004, the court of the first instance of Syunik sentenced the defendants to 15 years in prison each, and the appeals court imposed an even harsher verdict – life imprisonment.

During their three years in jail, the young prisoners went on hunger strike in protest. The longest was Sargsyan’s – total of 120 days.

“Today, they are at large, but the three years they spent in prison, their moral and physical sufferings must be compensated, and not only financially. Moral compensation is also very important,” Postanjyan says.

Sargsyan, now 20, has serious health problems. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, has serious problems with his kidneys, a spinal hernia, and a tumor.

“Before conscription, Razmik Sargsyan was completely healthy. All his problems emerged in prison as a result of blows and beatings. He had a fever for several months. It was only after our protests that medical aid was given and they established that he had tuberculosis,” Postanjyan says.

Razmik’s mother, Julia Sargsyan, says that she had saved her son from the ruins of the earthquake in Gyumri. “What for? For him to be crippled in the army and prison?” she cries.

The President of “Huys” (“Hope”) NGO, Karen Hakobyan, says that case showed that Armenia’s prosecutorial and judicial systems were in felonious cooperation with each other.

“All state bodies, all the judges who issued verdicts that were not substantiated by sufficient evidence, even political parties that were completely indifferent to numerous public appeals, all are responsible for keeping innocent young men in prison for three years and ruining their health,” Hakobyan says.

Arayik Zalyan’s sister, Ophelia, considers her brother’s release a miracle. She says: “We had already lost all hope, we thought that there was no justice in this country, but thank God they are home today, not healthy, but alive.”

Postanjyan and her fellow lawyers Stepan Voskanyan and Ashot Atoyan say that they will press for those responsible for the miscarriage of justice to be brought to court.

Their list of accused is long, and includes the Deputy Prosecutor General of Armenia, the former military prosecutor Gagik Jhangiryan, prosecuting attorneys Anahit Yeghiazaryan and Ashot Apresyan, military police officers Aghasi Bagratunyan, Aram Baghdasaryan (nicknamed Maralik), investigators of the Military Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia Armen Hakobyan and Samvel Tonoyan, the judge of the first instance court of Armenia’s Syunik region Volodya Manaseryan, and judges of the RA Appeals Court for Criminal and Military Cases Mher Arghamanyan, Artur Poghosyan and Armen Danielyan, as well as the doctor of the Nubarashen penitentiary Gor Khachatryan.

The unprecedented decision to release the three men was made under the chairmanship of judge Mher Khachatryan. Five days later, Khachatryan was relieved of his post and appointed chairman of the Appeals Court for Criminal and Military Cases, effectively a demotion.

According to chairman of the Court of Cassation, Hovhannes Manukyan, the move was not in any way connected with the verdict in this case.

“It was simply a coincidence in timing,” Manukyan told ArmeniaNow.

Karen Hakobyan hopes the verdict will become a starting point in the struggle for people wrongly convicted in other military cases, as well as for parents still seeking justice for the killings of their sons in the army.

“Since 1994, about 100 young people in the army were punished annually for crimes they did not commit. After this victory, we must expose every case and achieve justice,” Hakobyan says.