By Emil Danielyan

Radio Liberty, Czech Rep
June 1 2006

Three Armenian army soldiers are facing a life in prison, accused
of a double murder which they say they did not commit and which
their lawyers believe was the work of their military commander in

An appeals court in Yerevan convicted this week Razmik Sargsian,
Musa Serobian and Arayik Zalian of killing two fellow conscripts
in December 2003, in a trial denounced by Armenian human rights
organizations as a parody of justice.

The high-profile case has cast a rare media spotlight on dozens of
out-of-combat deaths that occur in Armenia's Armed Forces each year.

Official figures show that Armenian servicemen are at much greater risk
of dying at the hands of their commanders and comrades than from enemy
fire. Hundreds of them have lost their lives as a result of hazing and
other chronic army abuses since a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement
stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Karabakh 12 years ago.

Young conscripts Roman Yeghiazarian and Hovsep Mkrtumian added to
this grim statistics when their swollen corpses bearing traces of
violence were recovered from a reservoir in Karabakh's northern
Martakert district in January 2004. Several soldiers of their unit
were promptly arrested by military prosecutors on suspicion of
involvement in the crime. One of them effectively testified that the
killings were committed by none other than Captain Ivan Grigorian,
the Karabakh Armenian commander of their battalion.

The investigators, however, dismissed the testimony, releasing the
suspects and arresting three other soldiers that were subsequently
given life sentences. The conviction was based on a videotaped
"confession" made by one of them, Razmik Sargsian, after fours
days of interrogation in April 2004. Sargsian and a team of lawyers
representing the three men insists that the confession was extracted
under sadistic duress and threats of rape. The 20-year-old has alleged
that Armenia's chief military prosecutor, Gagik Jahangirian, personally
punched him in the face.

Although Sargsian's face was clearly swollen and bruised in video of
the interrogation shown during a court session in Yerevan last year,
the investigators have strongly denied torturing him. A court in the
Karabakh capital Stepanakert, which has a legally questionable status
of an Armenian district court contradicting Armenia's constitution,
refused to investigate the torture allegations before sentencing the
three servicemen to 15 years in prison one year ago.

On Tuesday, Armenia's Court of Appeals not only rejected an appeal
filed by their attorneys but also replaced the lengthy jail terms
with a life imprisonment at the behest of the military prosecutors.

Anahit Yeghiazarian, the trial prosecutor, argued in a court speech
on April 18 that Sargsian could not have been severely beaten up
as he hismself had written his self-incriminating testimony with a
"nice and neat handwriting."

Yeghiazarian added that the court should take into account not
only factual evidence but also her and other prosecutors' personal
beliefs. "I am guided not only by evidence but also by my internal
conviction," she declared.

Zaruhi Postanjian, one of the defense lawyers, condemned the resulting
harsh verdict on Thursday and said she will appeal to the Court of
Cassation, Armenia's highest criminal justice body. "I am convinced
that my clients are innocent," she told RFE/RL, adding that the appeals
court deliberately refused to question most of the key witnesses in
the case.

Postanjian also claimed that the lower-court ruling against her
clients was toughened to discourage anyone from challenging military
prosecutors in the future. "Their message boils down to the following,
'Look, power is in our hands. If you appeal our rulings, then rest
assured that you'll end up in even greater trouble.'"

Human rights campaigners who have closely monitored the case also
strongly criticized the ruling. "It will further deepen public distrust
in Armenia's judiciary and armed forces," said Avetik Ishkhanian of
the Armenian Helsinki Committee. "It is a vivid of example of the
state of criminal justice in Armenia."

Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia's former human rights ombudsperson who has
personally dealt with the case, likewise decried "blatant violations"
of due process which she believes were committed during the pre-trial
investigation and the court hearings in Stepanakert and Yerevan.

According to the official version of events, Sargsian, Serobian and
Zalian brutally murdered the two other soldiers near the Karabakh
village of Mataghis and dumped their bodies into the reservoir
on December 24, 2003 after a dispute over a food parcel that was
delivered to one of the servicemen. The defense lawyers say there are
numerous facts disproving the charges and have come up with a totally
different theory. According to it, Grigorian, the battalion commander
who allegedly suffers from alcoholism, beat Roman Yeghiazarian to
death and killed the other victim, Hovsep Mkrtumian, after the latter
refused to "confess" to the crime.

Lawyer Postanjian claimed that there are eyewitness soldiers who
would testify that Mkrtumian was still alive as of December 31, 2003.

She pointed to a January 2004 autopsy which found that Mkrtumian died
at least two weeks after Yeghiazarian.

It has also emerged that the commander of the Karabakh Armenian army,
Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanian, sent a letter to the top military
prosecutor in Yerevan in early 2004 asking him not to bring charges
against Grigorian. Ohanian argued in the letter that the Karabakh
captain is a prominent veteran of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan.

The three young men may now spend the rest of their lives behind bars
because of what another human rights campaigner, Mikael Danielian,
regards as yet another high-level cover-up of army deaths. "This case
is not unprecedented," he told RFE/RL. "There have been numerous such
cases. It's just that they did not have so much resonance."

Danielian cited the fate of Artur Mkrtchian, who was sentenced to death
in 1996 for allegedly murdering five other soldiers despite pleading
not guilty to the accusations. The death penalty was subsequently
commuted to life imprisonment.

The Armenian military insists that the number of deaths within its
ranks has steadily declined since the late 1990s. However, even the
official death statistics shows that it is still far from eliminating
the problem. According to the Military Prosecutor's Office, 89 soldiers
died in the course of last year and only 15 of them were shot dead
in skirmishes with Azerbaijani forces on the Karabakh frontline and
the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Ishkhanian estimated that at least 1,000 Armenian conscripts aged
between 18 and 20 have lost their lives in out-of-combat incidents
since the 1994 truce. He could not recall any instances of senior or
mid-ranking army officers prosecuted in connection with those deaths.