Two ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh received lengthy prison sentences on Tuesday as they were convicted of spying for Azerbaijan through the Internet.
A court in Stepanakert found Rafael Avagian, a 22-year-old Karabakh Armenian soldier, and his civilian friend Davit Barseghian guilty of high treason and espionage, sentencing them to 11 and 10 years in prison respectively.
Both men pleaded not guilty to the accusations stemming from their communication with an obscure foreigner through a Russian online social network. They said they never thought that they are collaborating with Azerbaijani intelligence.
The defendants’ lawyer, Arkadi Israeli, described the verdict as unfair. He argued, among other things, that investigators failed to establish the identity of the alleged Azerbaijani agent who started communicating with his clients about a year ago.
Avagian, the main suspect in the case, said during the trial that the man identified himself as Samvel Azatian and claimed to be an Istanbul-based representative of an Armenian Diaspora charity. He said Azatian claimed that the charity plans to launch benevolent activities in Karabakh and needs detailed information about the disputed territory’s armed forces as well as civilian institutions and infrastructures.
Avagian said he sent pictures and other details of Karabakh army units and received about $1,000 and several other “gifts” in return. He said he then paid Barseghian $200 to travel to an Armenian-controlled district south of Karabakh to take pictures of Syrian Armenian settlers living there.
According to Avagian, the online interlocutor afterwards asked him to make a written pledge to carry out “secret tasks” for money. The soldier serving in the Karabakh army on a contractual basis said he signed a corresponding document sent from Istanbul shortly before his and Barseghian’s arrest in March.
The arrests were announced by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) on June 25. In a statement, the NSS also reported the detention on similar charges of a 31-year-old woman serving in the Armenian army.
The NSS said the woman, Mane Movsisian, communicated through Facebook and other online networks with an unnamed Azerbaijani intelligence officer based in Turkey. It claimed that she gave him classified “information of military nature about Armenia.” It gave no further details.