By Ruzanna Stepanian
Two prominent veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and one of their former comrades-in-arms went on a high-profile trial on Monday, accused of plotting to overthrow Armenia’s government.
Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian appeared before a court in Yerevan seven months after being arrested on what they and their supporters call trumped-up and politically motivated charges. Sefilian is a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent who leads a naitonalist pressure group opposed to Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan, while Malkhasian is a leader of a small opposition party.
The two men were arrested by officers of the National Security Service (NSS) in December just days after presiding over the founding conference of a new organization opposed to the return of any of the occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Karabakh. Regime change in Yerevan is another declared aim of their Union of Armenian Alliance (HKH).
The case against Sefilian and Malkhasian is essentially based on statements made by them during the HKH gathering held behind the closed doors. They appeared to justify violent actions as a legitimate method of struggle against the administration of President Robert Kocharian. Publicly calling for a “violent overthrow of the government” is a crime in Armenia.
The third defendant, Vahan Aroyan, was arrested later in December after NSS investigators claimed to have found a massive arms cache in his village in southern Armenia. The former soldier has since been kept under arrest despite reportedly refusing to implicate Sefilian in the alleged illegal arms possession.
The courtroom, packed with supporters of the three men, burst into rapturous applause and chants of “Freedom! Freedom!” as Sefilian, Malkhasian and Aroyan took their seats in the dock surrounded by armed guards. Aroyan wore wartime military uniform.
Several dozen protesters also gathered outside the court of first instance of Yerevan’s Kentron and Nor-Marash. Organizers of the protest claimed that the authorities want to imprison the three nationalist activists due to a presidential election due early next year. “They want to prevent consolidation of Armenian volunteers during the pre-election period, which could in turn consolidate the opposition and seriously threaten the authorities,” said Armen Aghayan, another HKH leader.
The first hearing at districts adjourned until July 6 shortly after its start, with the defense lawyers demanding the replacement of the presiding judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian. They said Martirosian can not be impartial because he has repeatedly and ujustly refused to release the suspects on bail.
Just as the trial of the alleged coup plotters got underway, another Kentron court judge allowed the NSS to keep Aleksandr Arzumanian, a well-known opposition politician charged with being illegally financed from abroad, under pre-trial arrest for two more months.
Following a short hearing held behind the closed doors, the court ruled that Arzumanian should remain in detention on the grounds that he will obstruct justice if set free now. It also cited continuing “investigative actvities” conducted by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) as part of the politically charged criminal case. It also ignored a written statement by 19 Armenian parliamentarians who guaranteed that Arzumanian would not flee the country.
Arzumanian’s lawyer, Hovik Arsenian, rejected the verdict as “unfounded” and pledged to appeal it. He stood by his claims that the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB lacks any evidence to jail his client and is artificially dragging out his release.
There have been no known cases of Armenian courts rejecting arrest petitions filed by the ex-KGB.
Arzumanian was arrested on May 7 on charges of illegally receiving a large amount of money from Levon Markos, a fugitive Russian businessman of Armenian descent. His arrest came two days after NSS officers searched his Yerevan apartment and confiscated $55,400 worth of cash kept there. Arzumanian, who had served as foreign minister from 1996-1998, denies the accusations as politically motivated.