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Jailed Nationalist Denies Plotting Violent Regime Change


By Ruzanna Stepanian
Zhirayr Sefilian, an Armenian nationalist activist controversially jailed on coup charges, insists that he never sought to topple Armenia’s government by force, parliament deputies sympathizing with him said on Tuesday.

The mostly opposition lawmakers campaigning for Sefilian’s release showed journalists his written answers to their questions relating to the politically charged case. The Lebanese-Armenian veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh responded to them from his prison cell.

“It’s a ludicrous accusation fabricated on a political order,” Sefilian wrote. “I have always spoken of the need for regime change. But I can’t imagine doing that by means of force or arms because there is no need for that.”

“The people hate those several individuals [governing Armenia] so much that you just have to organize them a little and the regime will collapse. If calling for regime change is a crime, then at least half of Armenia’s population can be tried on that charge,” he said.

Sefilian and a leading member of a small opposition party, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested and charged last December under Article 301 of Armenia’s Criminal Code that deals with public calls for a “violent change constitutional order.” The arrests came just days after they set up a new organization opposed to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that the group, called the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers (HKH), planned to mount an armed uprising against the government during this year’s parliamentary elections. The NSS cites, among other things, Sefilian’s and Malkhasian’s passionate speeches at a December 2 meeting of about a hundred HKH activists.

In his speech, Sefilian threatened to “crack the head of anyone who will dare to surrender land” to Azerbaijan. He also scoffed at past opposition attempts to force regime change with a campaign of peaceful demonstrations. “These people will not quit as a result of peaceful demonstrations or external pressure,” he said, referring to President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.

The Lebanese national’s lawyers insist that the remarks did not contain explicit calls for a violent overthrow of the government. Some human rights campaigners agree. “I believe that there is nothing in the speech punishable by criminal law,” said Larisa Alaverdian, Armenia’s former human rights ombudsperson. “If we open criminal cases after every emotional speech, Armenia will become awash with political prisoners.”

The opposition deputies, who formed a committee in support of the two men, and several prominent intellectuals on Tuesday challenged the Armenian authorities to prosecute them as well, publicly putting their signatures on the transcript of Sefilian’s speech. Armenia’s leading opposition groups have repeatedly condemned the case as politically motivated.

In his written answers, Sefilian also said he has been personally interrogated by the deputy chief of the NSS, Hrachya Harutiunian. He claimed: “[Harutiunian] said, ‘Why are you doing business with the opposition?’ Who the hell are they? You don’t realize how strong we are. We’re going to crush them.’”
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