By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s Court of Appeals upheld on Tuesday prison sentences handed to two prominent veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war who were arrested late last year for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian were charged with publicly calling for violent regime change, a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, just days after setting up a new anti-government group opposed to major Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan.
Only one of them, Malkhasian, was convicted of the coup charge by a Yerevan district court last July. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Sefilian was handed a 18-month jail term under another article of the Criminal Code dealing with illegal arms possession. Both the defendants and prosecutors appealed the verdicts.
The Court of Appeals ruled to keep the rulings unchanged despite vehement protests from Malkhasian and Sefilian and their lawyers. They again denied the charges and denounced the case as politically motivated.
Sefilian was jailed for possessing and allegedly carrying a pistol which he had received as a gift from Samvel Babayan, former commander-in-chief of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army in which he served as a senior officer until 1998. Although his lawyers produced copies of a relevant order signed by Babayan at the time, prosecutors showed in both courts written statements from the current Karabakh army command saying that the gift was illegal. The panel of three judges led by Mher Arghamanian accepted their arguments.
Both defendants were confident that they will not be acquitted and set free in their final remarks that preceded the announcement of the verdict. “I have nothing to say because this is not a court,” charged Sefilian. “This is just a tool in the hands of the existing criminal regime.”
“You are not the ones who will rule [on the case,]” the Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent told the judges. “You will announce what they will tell you.”
“Sooner or later we will be free. Unlike us, those who ordered this case will one day enter prison and never get out of it,” he said.
Malkhasian also struck a defiant note. “The prison will strengthen, harden us. It will make us steely men,” he said.
The appeals court also extended from 18 months to 2 years the prison sentence handed to a third defendant, Vahan Aroyan, for illegal arms possession. Aroyan was arrested later in December after law-enforcement officers found a cache weapons and ammunition in his village house in southern Armenia. It remains unclear what connection those weapons may have had with Malkhasian’s and Sefilian’s anti-government activities.
(Malkhasian, right, and Sefilian pictured during a court hearing in June.)