By Emil Danielyan
Ending a controversial trial denounced as “unfair” by official Yerevan, a court in Equatorial Guinea has given lengthy prison sentences to six Armenian pilots arrested last March on charges of plotting to topple the west African nation’s president.
Captain Ashot Karapetian and five members of his aircrew were sentenced to 24 and 14 years respectively late Friday after being convicted of involvement in the apparent conspiracy against the oppressive regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. All of them pleaded not guilty to the accusations. It remained unclear what specific evidence, if any, led a court in the capital Malabo to jail them along with five South African nationals.
The Armenian government was quick to deplore the verdict. “We are absolutely convinced that the Armenian pilots had nothing to do with any action directed against Equatorial Guinea and its government, and the court has not brought any compelling evidence against them,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said it will continue to make “every effort” to secure the release of its citizens. Two senior Armenian diplomats that monitored the three-month trial will stay in Malabo to discuss possible ways of doing that with Nguema’s government, the statement added. In the meantime, the pilots’ Guinean defense lawyer will lodge an appeal against “the unfair verdict” with the oil-rich country’s Supreme Court.
The jailed Armenians are the aircrew of an Antonov-12 cargo plane that belongs to the Yerevan-based firm Tiga Air and was leased by a German airfreight company, Central Asian Logistics (CAL), late last year. Both Tiga Air and CAL maintain that the aircraft was only supposed to ship oil equipment to the former Spanish colony which is now Africa’s third largest oil producer.
They also strongly deny having ever dealt with Nick du Toit, one of the jailed South Africans who the prosecution says prepared for the arrival of a large group of South African mercenaries. Du Toit insisted throughout the trial that the Armenians had no connection with the planned coup.
According to British press reports, the putsch was bankrolled by South African and London-based businessmen keen to gain control over Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves by bringing Nguema’s exiled opponents to power. Citing “confidential documents,” a leading British weekly, “The Observer,” claimed on Sunday that the British government was informed of the plot late last year but failed to alert the Equato-Guinean authorities.
The Antonov-12 aircrew were among dozens of Armenian aviators who have to carry out flights in Africa and the Middle East due to a lack of employment opportunities at home. Colleagues say they often work in dangerous conditions. Two Armenian planes have already crashed in Iran and Sudan under mysterious circumstances.
The small South Caucasus state operated 13 airports and a had a fleet of commercial aircraft that employed more than a thousand pilots and technicians before the Soviet break-up. Only a fraction of them have retained their jobs. Last year’s collapse of Armenian Airlines, the state-run flagship carrier, alone left more than 300 aviators jobless.
(AP-Photolur photo: Handcuffed Armenian pilots entering the Malabo court.)