By Emil Danielyan
Samvel Babayan, the controversial former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army, was pardoned and set free on Friday more than four years after being imprisoned on charges of plotting to assassinate the president of the Armenian-populated unrecognized republic, Arkady Ghukasian.
An official in the Karabakh government told RFE/RL that Babayan, 39, was in a group of local convicts who were given an amnesty by a presidential decree. The official added that the amnesty granted to the once powerful general is a “partial” one, meaning that he will be on a one-year probation.
Other sources said that Babayan arrived at his apartment in Yerevan later in the day, suggesting that he will now spend most of his time there. He is legally barred from holding a senior government post in Karabakh for the next five years.
A former car mechanic, Babayan became the commander of the Karabakh Armenian army at the height of its victorious 1991-1994 secessionist war with Azerbaijan. He later emerged as the disputed region’s most powerful man, concentrating sweeping political and economic powers in his hands at a time when Karabakh was led by Robert Kocharian, the current president of Armenia.
Known for his hard line on Azerbaijan, Babayan lost power in late 1999 after his defeat in a bitter power struggle with Ghukasian. He was arrested in March 2000 just hours after an attempt on the life of the Karabakh president and was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment a year for allegedly masterminding the plot. Also sentenced were the two men who confessed to seriously wounding Ghukasian in a late-night ambush in Stepanakert.
Babayan denied any involvement in the assassination bid throughout the trial, accusing the Ghukasian of waging a political vendetta against his most formidable opponent. His protestations of innocence were strongly backed by his supporters in both Karabakh and Armenia. The most prominent of them is opposition leader Artashes Geghamian.
It is not yet clear who initiated Babayan’s sudden release from a fortress jail in the Karabakh town of Shusha. Kocharian public hinted at the possibility of a pardon in November 2001. But Ghukasian has until now argued that the former war hero does not qualify for an amnesty because he has not admitted his guilt.
(Photolur photo: Babayan, left, and Ghukasian attending an official ceremony in 1998.)