The sentence was condemned by the victim's family as too lenient and has proved highly controversial, partly because of the judge's refusal to admit the evidence of a key eyewitness, a British expatriate. The judgment effectively accepts the bodyguard's version of the events that led to the death of Poghos Poghosian, a Georgian of Armenian descent, in the men's room of the Poplavok jazz cafe just minutes after the president had left the club.
In his testimony, Harutiunian said that he had "reprimanded" Porghosian after Poghosian greeted President Robert Kocharian in a way the bodyguard thought was too familiar. The bodyguard said Poghosian then led him into the toilet and punched him in the face. In self-defense, Harutiunian said, he gave Poghosian a "gentle shove," causing Poghosian to hit his head on the floor.
Most accounts indicate that the clash began after Porghosian shouted "Hello, Rob!" to the president as he passed Porghosian's table in the company of French singer Charles Aznavour. In contrast to Harutiunian's testimony, Gurgen Arsenian, the head of Kocharian's bodyguard service, testified that Poghosian, a member of the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), had cursed the president.
At this point, accounts diverge. Indeed, in admitting that he was in some way involved in the events leading to Poghosian's death, Harutiunian went further than the 25 out of 26 witnesses who were unwilling to confirm his involvement in court.
The key evidence against Harutiunian was not heard in the trial after the judge refused to accept a written statement by the only person to come forward as a witness to the events in the toilet. British citizen Stephen Newton claimed Harutiunian had given a "totally false account" of events. In Newton's account, Harutiunian led Poghosian into the toilets, accompanied by five to seven of the president's men. When Newton's companion said, "They will kill him," Newton went to the toilets. There he found Poghosian still alive, frothing at the mouth. He 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. After the bodyguards had left, several men entered and tried to persuade Newton that they would "deal with this now." Newton, who had contacts with the government, recognized the men as members of the president's staff.
According to Armenia Weekly, an English-language weekly, State Prosecutor Eduard Sarikian had himself argued that Newton's testimony should not be accepted because it was not prepared "according to Armenian law." When the attorney acting for the victim's brother, Andranik Poghosian, asked whether that shouldn't be an argument for the defense to make, Sarikian replied, "My job is to protect the law." After Sarikian's speech for the prosecution, Andranik Poghosian walked out of the courtroom, accusing law enforcement agencies of covering up the murder and saying, "This court is paying lip service to the president of the republic." Sarikian, who was seen chatting with and shaking the hands of the bodyguard's supporters during the trial, refused to talk to journalists after the verdict.
Other unusual features of the trial have aroused suspicions about the quality of justice in the case. Harutiunian was, for example, allowed to sit on a bench like an ordinary spectator, rather than behind bars. In addition, during the trial most witnesses changed their initial testimonies. Moreover, the judge refused to accept Andranik Poghosian's appeal to cross-examine more witnesses, including several other Kocharian bodyguards, arguing that the 46-day trial would last five years.
The case has been heavily criticized by Georgian and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which condemned Kocharian for not acting on his promise to bring to justice everyone involved in the crime. While maintaining a seemingly neutral position on the trial, the president has also been criticized for not taking further steps to make potential witnesses at the trial feel safe.
Many political parties, regardless of affiliation, have also expressed doubts about the trial. Galust Sahakian, who heads the pro-government Miasnutiun grouping in parliament, has said, "I personally find it hard to understand such a verdict handed down in a murder case." Dashnaktsutiun, the party of which Poghosian was a member, criticized the verdict as "unjust" but continued to support Kocharian, stating the belief that he had exerted no pressure in the case. The Armenian Communist Party lambasted the trial, saying it resembled a "game."
Immediately after Poghosian's death, Georgia's ethnic Armenian media responded angrily, adding it to a list of cases of torture, violence, and pressure by officials. The Armenian public as a whole appears to believe the administration applied pressure and that numerous witnesses were afraid to speak. A widespread view is that the case was just one example of the impunity granted to security officers, and that Poghosian's death became public only because of the presence of foreigners and prominent public figures.