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In 2001, an intoxicated Georgian-Armenian was viciously beaten to death in a bathroom stall by then-President Robert Kocharian’s bodyguard, Aghamal Harutiunyan, during a jazz concert in Yerevan’s Poplavok cafe. The victim, Poghos Poghosian, had been imprudent enough to “insult” the president by greeting him with, “Hello, Rob!” (short for Robert). The bodyguard received a mere probation for his crime, as the court rejected the key witness account of British citizen Stephen Newton.
Stephen Newton's testimony
'A Sickening, Terrible Sight'
26 Feb 2002
How did a by-stander come to die minutes after making a comment to Armenia's President Robert Kocharian? Here, a British eyewitness gives his account, an account that the Yerevan court refused to accept as evidence.
On 21 February 2002, a bodyguard of the Armenian president was given a one-year suspended sentence for the manslaughter of a Georgian of Armenian origin who, he claimed, had addressed President Robert Kocharian in an overly familiar way. The case has done little to clear doubts about the events of that night, partly because the Armenian court refused to accept as evidence a written statement by a key eyewitness, a British expatriate working on the European Union's Tacis project in Yerevan. This statement by Stephen Newton gives a radically different account of the events that led to the death of Poghos Poghosian and the role of Aghamal Harutiunian and the rest of the presidential entourage. Newton submitted this in absentia to Human Rights Watch in New York, fearing to return to Armenia.
c/o Human Rights Watch,
South Caucasus Researcher,
Europe and Central Asia division,
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor,
New York, NY 10118 USA.
My report on the incident at Poplavok September 24th/25th 2001
I make this statement in absentia from Armenia for the attention of the Court of First Instance of the Obshchina Centre-Nork-Marash of Yerevan in the case dealing with the killing of Pogos Poghosian on 25th September 2001.
In September 2001, I was living in Yerevan, working as a short-term expert on the European Union Tacis project on reform of public administration. Accompanied by a companion, I arrived at the Poplavok Jazz club approx. 2100hrs on the 24th. We joined a table of friends who were artists from Cyprus and Armenia. We were having a good night talking, exchanging stories and listening to the jazz. The President and Charles Aznavour arrived at the club and were greeted by us with applause. They went inside the club whereas we sat outside next to the boating lake and opposite the steps to the road and the entrance to the toilet.
The President, Charles Aznavour and their party left at approx. 0015hrs and were applauded as they left via the steps to the main road. Many guards and members of the President's staff accompanied them.
Two people who had originally been seated inside near the President's party followed the entourage to the top of the steps. Both of them were smartly dressed, albeit a little drunk, in good spirits. One of them (later identified as Stepan Nalbandian) was trying to restrain the other (later identified as Pogos Poghosian). I saw the president's bodyguards roughly push the two back down the steps, towards the entrance of the toilet. They were particularly brutal in the way they pushed Pogos Poghosian.
We were among others who called to the guards to cease manhandling the two men. They ignored our pleas and continued with a man (later identified as `Kuku' from newspaper photographs) placing his arm around the shoulders of Pogos and taking him through the toilet entrance.
Between 5 and 7 of the President's men quickly entered the toilet after `Kuku', closing the door behind them, and at this point my companion said `They will kill him'.
I reacted by saying that I could not sit back and do nothing to prevent that happening. I stood up and ran to the toilet, entered, and as I went down the stairs I saw a powerfully built, 35-40 year-old man beating Stepan Nalbandian. He thumped Nalbandian in the head. He held Nalbandian's collar with his left hand and was about to thump him again with his right fist. I put my hand up to the assailant's face and shouted `Stop this'. The assailant looked me straight in the eyes and stopped beating Nalbandian. He brushed past me up the toilet steps and went out and I went two metres forward to see the feet of Poghosian protruding from the toilet (WC) cubicle. I approached closer and saw Poghosian lying on the floor, face up, next to the toilet. It was clear to me that Poghosian had been very badly beaten around the head, probably kicked, and a large lump on his left temple, about the size of a thumb, indicated a possible blow from a pistol or similar blunt instrument. The skin all around his eyes was puffed and swelled up like that of a boxer after a fight in which he has taken a lot of hard blows to the face. In fact, because of the swelling you could hardly see Poghosian's eyes, and the swelling of his face generally made it about twenty percent larger than normal. It was a sickening, terrible sight, the memory of which I still find deeply disturbing. Poghosian was still just alive at this point - frothing in his mouth, and making gurgling, rasping noises. Because he was wearing clothes I could not see any other injuries on him, nor could I see the back of his head. I do not recall seeing much blood. I told the guards, who all appeared shorter than the man who had been attacking Stepan Nalbandian on the stairs, `You have killed him. Get a doctor to this man now.'
The guards were joined by people from the President's office, who entered from outside. About five of these new people appeared. They were young men. I recognized them as belonging to the president's staff both because some were wearing special radio earpieces, and because I knew at least one of them by his face. They shouted phrases to the guards that included the repeated word: `Britanski! Britanski!' I suppose they were telling the guards that I was British and that they should leave. I shouted that the man (Poghosian) needed medical attention, as he was unconscious. The President's men spoke to me in English. One of them said to me: `Don't worry. We will deal with this. You should leave now'. Very keyed up, distrustful of their motives, and not wanting to leave Poghosian alone with his tormentors and their friends, I replied: ` I am not leaving here until you bring an ambulance and ...(because I could not think of anything better at that point) the British ambassador.' During this verbal exchange the guards who had been involved in the attack left the toilet.
I turned to look up the stairs and saw my companion there. She had followed me to make sure that I was OK. I asked her to call for medical help and she made a call on a mobile telephone for immediate help. At this stage Poghosian was not dead. Staff from Poplavok brought water and whilst Nalbandian lifted his friend's head, a tall man I understand to be Poplavok's manager threw water over him. This seemed to revive him slightly. At this point I left the toilet with my companion and went back to our table.
Within minutes two paramedics arrived and entered the toilet. They re-appeared in less than a minute to say that Poghosian was dead.
I spoke to two policemen standing outside and asked them to arrest those responsible. My request was ignored and the two men simply mounted guard at the entrance to the toilet and prevented anyone from entering.
I was shocked and could not believe that folk were sitting listening to Jazz whilst this incident had occurred, so I shouted `While you are enjoying your jazz a man has been murdered here!' in the hope that others present, including the Minister of Justice, would see that justice was done. Some gasps of astonishment went up and the music stopped.
Our party left the club and I went home in a state of shock.
Fear for my life prompted me to leave Armenia after one week of sleepless nights. I stayed in the UK for two weeks and returned to Armenia after it appeared that a prosecution would go ahead without involving me.
The prosecution service's indictment of only one man for the attack and its failure to classify the killing as a murder is not credible. I understand that the indictment gives the cause of death as a single blow to the back of the head due, allegedly, to Poghosian falling over backwards and hitting the back of his head on the floor. What then of the serious injuries to Poghosian's face and forehead? The prosecution's indictment gives no explanation of them.
The press coverage and in particular the TV have shown that `Kuku' is a liar and it seems to me that the other witnesses are too frightened to tell the truth. In particular, the court confrontation between Stepan Nalbandian and `Kuku', as reported in the media, demonstrated Nalbandian to be telling the truth, and `Kuku' to be giving a totally false account. For example, `Kuku' falsely claimed that he was alone in the toilet with Poghosian, and that they both slipped over because the floor was covered in water. But water only got onto the floor after the attack on Poghosian, when water was poured on him in an attempt to revive him.
I hope that this statement will lead the court and the prosecution to deal with this wanton and unnecessary act of violence to the full satisfaction of justice for the deceased, his family and the people of Armenia.
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