By Karine Kalantarian
A prominent veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war bitterly opposed to Armenia’s leadership was freed on Monday after serving a controversial 18-month prison sentence.
Zhirayr Sefilian, a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, pledged to continue to fight for regime change despite facing the possibility of deportation from the country.
Sefilian and another war veteran, Vartan Malkhasian, had been arrested and charged with calling for a violent overthrow of the government in December 2006 just days after setting up a new pressure group opposed to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. A Yerevan court found Malkhasian guilty on that count and sentenced him to two years in prison in August 2007. The court cleared Sefilian of the charge but still jailed him for 18 months for illegally possessing a pistol which he had received as a gift from a former commander of the Karabakh Armenian army.
Sefilian and Malkhasian deny the accusations as politically motivated. They both endorsed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian in Armenia’s recent presidential election despite his conciliatory line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Sefilian was greeted by more than a dozen friends and supporters as he left the Vartashen prison in Yerevan early in the morning. “First of all, I want to thank journalists who have spread our word to the people to the dismay of the authorities for the past one and a half years,” he said. “I’m optimistic. Everything will be alright.
“Whether [the authorities] keep us in jail for two or twenty years, nothing will change, as far as we are concerned. Let them think about themselves.”
“We will soon clear our country of those scoundrels,” Sefilian told journalists before heading to the Yerablur military where more than a dozen fellow veterans are on hunger strike to demand the release of scores of other Ter-Petrosian arrested in the government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition.
The authorities indicated last month their intention to expel Sefilian to Lebanon after he is set free. The Armenian police filed a relevant lawsuit to Armenia’s Administrative Court on the grounds that his residency permit has expired. The court refused to consider the application on a technicality on May 27. The police have not filed a fresh suit yet.
Sefilian called the deportation attempt as a “disgrace” and condemned the authorities for refusing to grant him Armenian citizenship. “I don’t know if there is any other precedent of a military commander of a particular state not having its citizenship,” he said.