Diary: From Armenia to Newcastle, and back again?


Andy McSmith
Tuesday 07 February 2012 01:00 GMT

The most alarming incident that ever interrupted our House of Commons was a purple flour bomb thrown at Tony Blair – very tame compared with a ghastly incident that brought prime minister's questions to a bloody halt in Armenia in October 1999.

Five gunmen with automatic weapons burst in and killed the Prime Minister, the Speaker and at least six others. Later, they surrendered meekly when the republic's President Robert Kocharyan arrived to negotiate in person.

In the intervening 12 years, it has repeatedly been rumoured that the killers were the President's hit men, sent to rid of him of a dangerous rival. Not many Armenians risked saying so in public, but one man who did is living destitute in Newcastle upon Tyne, fighting a desperate final battle against deportation. During a violent presidential election in 2008 an opposition party member, Ashot Aghababyan, now 39, spoke through a megaphone to protesters in Armenia's capital, accusing the President of murder.

Then he fled. Having no income, he is living in a well-wisher's house. His case has been heard by two tribunals. At the first, he was given a Russian interpreter. They found an Armenian speaker for the second, but it was the wrong dialect. His case has now gone to judicial review.

Robert Chenciner, Senior Associate at St Antony's College Oxford and honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has warned that "he continues to be at risk" if forced to go back. He added: "They are likely to want to silence him by putting him in prison on false charges and the corrupt judiciary and police would be unwilling or unable to protect him."

Staying power

Congratulations to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, 72, who will be receiving the Oldie of the Year award later today. He deserves it, if only for his indestructibility. Clarke has spent more years as a minister than any British politician since Winston Churchill. Only a handful managed to stay in the government from 1979 to 1997, and of that tiny band, Clarke was the only one who had held office under Edward Heath, and the only one to come back under David Cameron.

Calm down, dears

A new piece of analysis popped up over the weekend on the Trendy website, which tracks and plots trends. Hugo Carr (son of Simon, The Independent sketch writer) went through the front pages of newspapers counting the total number of words and dividing by the number of emotive words such as "outrage", "scum", "hysteria" etc, to give each publication a hysteria rating. The Daily Mail topped the poll, with a rating of 3.59, ahead of The Sun on 3.20. The Independent is in the middle, on 1.51, while the ever trusty BBC News is the least hysterical of all, with a rating of 0.48

Royal blush

There are a lot of young researchers working in the House of Commons who expect their tweets and Facebook entries to be read by friends but otherwise generally ignored.

Matt Zarb, Commons researcher for Labour's shadow justice minister, Andrew Slaughter, was in a jovial mood yesterday when he tweeted: "Congratulations this morning to Queen Elizabeth II. Sixty years of scrounging benefits off the taxpayer without being caught."

Oh dear! That was one that did not get away. After a few hours of Twitter lather, Mr Zarb had to issue an apology, while Mr Slaughter put out a formal statement: "The Queen has given great service to our country and these comments are totally unacceptable."

Spy left out in the cold by the Beeb

Extras on the new DVD of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy include a specially filmed interview with John le Carré, the old spook who reinvented himself as the greatest thriller writer of his day, of whom there is a fleeting glimpse in the film itself, as one of the revellers at an office party.

He reveals that he also turned up on the set when the BBC was shooting the television series of the same book, but was asked to leave because Alec Guinness found his presence "disconcerting".

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