YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Two former prominent ministers from the administration of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosyan on Monday were again faced with the possibility of lengthy jail sentences–standing separate trials on charges of contract murder and corruption.
The former interior minister Vano Siradeghian listened to the final part of prosecutors’ indictment that accused him of ordering the murder of seven individuals while in power. In another court hall in Yerevan–the former minister of education–Ashot Bleyan–went on trial for an alleged abuse of power and embezzlement of public funds.
Siradeghian–who was one of Ter-Petrossian’s closest associates–was last year charged with a string of grave crimes–including the killings of a local government chief–the head of Armenia’s railway network and two police officers during the period between 1992 and 1995.
He is also accused of accepting a $40,000 bribe while in office. The ex-minister formally pleaded not guilty to all of the charges after the indictment was read by the prosecutor. Siradeghian and his former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement have repeatedly condemned the criminal proceedings as politically motivated.
Law-enforcement agencies allege that some of the crimes in question were committed by a death squad set up by Siradeghian in the early 1990s. A group of nine men led by Armen Ter-Sahakian–a former police officer–is alleged to have made up an interior ministry "gang" and have been standing a separate trial.
Also tried with Siradeghian are 11 other defendants. Among them is his former deputy and commander of Armenian interior troops–Vahan Harutiunian. Harutiunian on Monday effectively admitted that he was responsible for the murder of two police officers in 1995 after they had allegedly failed to carry out Siradeghian’s order to kill a Moscow-based Armenian businessman.
"There were people shot dead–and only on that count am I partially guilty. Apparently–it was possible to somehow prevent that," he told the court. Defendant Sahak Balian–who is said to have personally killed the two policemen–said he had "only executed orders," while most of the other defendants pleaded not guilty.
The reading of the indictment left the court entering the next stage of what is likely to be a lengthy trial: the questioning of the defendants–witnesses and the "victims" of Siradeghian’s alleged offenses. The judge hearing the case–Razmik Tovmasian–said earlier that at least 230 individuals are due to be questioned.
The court proceedings that got underway last September have been slowed down by a frequent change of Siradeghian’s defense counsels. The prosecution and some defendants have accused him of obstructing the trial. But his lawyers say that he has acted in accordance with the law.
Meanwhile–the former education minister Bleyan demanded his release from jail for the duration of his trial which opened on Monday. Bleyan accused prosecutors of illegally keeping him in jail–but the judge presiding over the trial rejected his argumen’s.
Bleyan is the chairman of the small New Path party–the only Armenian group advocating Nagorno-Karabakh’s return under Azeri control The party claims that the charges leveled against its leader are trumped-up.
Bleyan worked as director of a major secondary school in Yerevan at the time of his arrest in May 1999. Two female accountants who worked for the school also went on trial on related charges.