- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
April 23, 2004

Our Best in Budapest?: Can Armenia’s choice handle the environment of an international murder trial?

Political tension in Yerevan has shifted focus from the upcoming trial in Hungary in the death of Armenian Army Lieutenant Gurgen Markaryan.
The slain officer was memorialized in Yerevan.

Markaryan was murdered February 19 while attending a NATO “Partnership for Peace” conference in Budapest. Ramil Safarov, an officer in the Azerbaijan Army has been charged.

Armenians were shocked by news of Markaryan’s brutal murder, and were outraged by commentary in Baku that turned Safarov into a national hero.

Funds have been established in Azerbaijan for Safarov’s defense and he is regularly visited by countrymen concerned for his well being. Azeri politicians, lawyers, public figures and his country’s ombudsman are manipulating pre-trial developments. His family receives money from a special fund established specifically for their purpose, called “Ramil Safarov Stipend”.

Meanwhile Markaryan’s family is almost forgotten.

Ombudsman Elmira Suleimanova has written to Hungarian officials “reminding” that Safarov is a victim of Armenian aggression. A chief rights advocate attached a document to the letter “concerning outrages committed by Armenian ‘monsters’ in Khojalu”.

One needn’t peculiar insight to conclude that Azeri measures will aim at influencing a favorable outcome in Budapest. Nor should one doubt that neighbors to the east will be intent on a verdict that in effect indicts Armenia, while vindicating Safarov as a victim out to avenge his family’s or nations death.

Simply, in Budapest there is a murderer, witnesses, a weapon and, in a Yerevan grave, a victim. But what, without these extenuating conditions might be a routine trial, promises to be an extraordinary theater in which relations between two republics are examined.

That the murder took place in NATO’s very front yard and was neither an example of “peace” nor “partnership” does not inspire confidence for Armenia-Azeri collaboration in upcoming joint-operations; specifically, multi-national military training to take place in September in Azerbaijan.

It is logical to presume that NATO might side with the aggrieved party in the hostility that not only escalated Armenian-Azeri hatred, but sullied NATO in the process.

But there is no evidence of such a bias as, till now, only Azerbaijan’s interest is obvious. Little is yet known as to how the Armenian side will protect its citizen’s rights or its honor.

About all that is known, is that Markaryan’s rights will be defended by Yerevan attorney Nazeli Vardanyan. And about all that could be learned about Vardanyan, is that she specializes in environmental law.

It would be unfair to judge the attorney’s effectiveness before she’s even had a chance to prove it. It is not unfair, however, for concerned citizens, aware that a country is on trial, to question why someone of her specialty has been appointed the task.

Journalists who might want to tell the citizenry who this woman is, are rebuffed, as if her very identity represents national security. Vardanyan herself referred us to a committee of five lawyers who will be working with her on the case. Attempts to get information by those means were not unsuccessful, but were dismissive.

There would be little reason for wanting to know the pedigree of an attorney, if this were merely a case of citizen against citizen. Clearly, though, it is not.

At stake is the reputation of a republic, and the risk of courtroom rhetoric being perceived as national foreign policy. Don’t, then, the people of Armenia deserve to know their representative has earned confidence?

Why did the Armenian International Lawyers Union appoint an environmental attorney to manage a case that could have exceptional repercussions? More significantly, why did the State react indifferently to the appointment? Typically, secrecy is maintained during investigations. But this secrecy of defense is something new for Armenia.

Ombudsman of Armenia Larisa Alaverdyan was asked whether Armenia, not to mention the rights of the victim, can adequately be represented by the State’s appointment to the case.

“The upcoming court battles in Budapest will be too much for one lawyer, even if he or she is very talented and clever,” Alaverdyan said. “I think there must be at least two lawyers and one expert on the issue of the Karabakh problem because it is clear that the Azeri side is going to use this incident for carrying out a public trial against Armenia and Karabakh. Besides, as I know Nazeli Vardanyan is not experienced enough in criminal cases, moreover, in cases where crime is loaded with political and interstate relations.”

Alaverdyan also says it is unacceptable that a second charge against Safarov – attempted murder on the life another officer, Hayk Makuchyan – has been completely neglected. The Ombudsman is of the opinion that the crime against the officers was premeditated and had far-reaching political goals.

“Supporting proper representation of the Armenian side at the forthcoming trial is a responsibility and duty of the government,” Alaverdyan says.

Why, then, trust the task to an attorney who is respected as an “eco-jurist”, but unknown in the field of criminal prosecution?

In October of last year, Vardanyan attended an international conference on ecology, in Hungary. Can it possibly be that Markaryan’s, and Armenia’s representation was selected merely because she has a Hungarian stamp in her passport?

Of course it seems absurd. But in the absence of information, we are left to speculate.

No doubt, “environment” will have a role in the Budapest trial. It is likely to be an environment bristling with slander, innuendo and attacks on nationality from both sides. We hope, nonetheless, that Armenia’s counsel has not been sent for her knowledge of enviro-law, but that she truly is a secret weapon, worthy of secrecy.

For it is clear that our neighbors are sparing no effort and means preparing for trial in Budapest. Head of the World Azerbaijani Congress expressed readiness to hire the best lawyer in Europe for defending the “national hero”. Notorious Azeri businessman Fizuli Mamedov (nicknamed Al Capone) has offered to finance all actions of defense. At the same time, Azerbaijan is providing the Hungarians with their peculiar history of the Karabakh conflict.

What will be Armenia’s answer? What will our government’s mouthpiece be able to do for protecting legal successors of Gurgen Markaryan and, correspondingly, national dignity?

We wonder. And worry. Days into preparation for the trial, the coalition of lawyers assisting Vardanyan complained they hadn’t yet even received the Hungarian Criminal Code. They said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is late with translation. They also complained that Armenia’s lead lawyer Vardanyan, did not even have a laptop computer or roaming services on her mobile phone – conditions that make communication a distraction if not an outright handicap.

Internal concern over the latest opposition activity has shoved this internationally-significant trial down the list of priorities set in Yerevan.

Among the many questions we have about the personnel charged with defending an officer’s rights and a republic’s name, none is more crucial than a question that lingers while others, too, are unanswered:

Is this the best our government can do? And isn’t it worth the attention of the public, even while Yerevan’s attention is on political rumbling?

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