By Karine Kalantarian
A state prosecutor demanded on Monday prison sentences of up to three years for two arrested opposition activists and one of their supporters accused of plotting to topple Armenia’s government.
The demand came at the latest court hearing in the politically charged trial of Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, the two leaders of a hard-line pressure group opposed to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.
The two men, both of them veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, set up the group called the Union of Armenian Volunteers (HKH) last December to also campaign for regime change in the country. They were arrested just days after holding its founding congress in Yerevan.
In his concluding remarks, the trial prosecutor, Artur Mkrtchian, said Sefilian and Malkhasian must be sentenced to three and two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment respectively for publicly calling for a “violent overthrow of the government.” He insisted that their speeches at the HKH gathering violated a corresponding article of Armenia’s Criminal Code.
In particular, Mkrtchian cited Malkhasian as telling hundreds of supporters that any means of struggle against the country’s leadership is legitimate. The prosecutor said although Sefilian made no such explicit statements, his speech was a “logical continuation” of Malkhasian’s.
The demanded punishment for Sefilian, a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, also includes an accusation of illegal possession of a pistol found by officers of the National Security Service (NSS) in his Yerevan apartment. Sefilian maintains that he received it in 1998 as an official gift from Samvel Babayan, the then commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army. However, the prosecutors have shown during the trial a statement by the current Karabakh army command saying that there are no official documents certifying this fact.
Sefilian rejects the statement as a fraud. He and Malkhasian also strongly deny the coup charges, saying that they never plotted an armed uprising against the government. Leaders of Armenia’s mainstream opposition have joined them in condemning the case as a government attempt to stifle dissent ahead of last May’s parliamentary elections and the presidential vote due early next year.
Prosecutor Mkrtchian also demanded a three-year jail term for Vahan Aroyan, the third defendant. The rank-and-file war veteran was detained later in December after NSS investigators claimed to have found an arms cache hidden in his village house in southern Armenia. Although Aroyan was arrested as part of the same criminal case, the prosecutors have still not clearly explained how his alleged arsenal could have been connected to the HKH and its two leaders.
(Photolur photo: Aroyan, left, Malkhasian, center, and Sefilian pictured during the trial.)