A retired Armenian army colonel who was arrested late last month after organizing street protests by fellow veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh has rejected as baseless and politically motivated fraud charges leveled against him.
Volodya Avetisian was charged on September 20 with having “embezzled” $2,000 from another man with a false promise to have his grandson exempted from compulsory military service. Neither Avetisian nor his lawyer made any public statements on this case until Monday evening.
In a written statement, Avetisian accused the Armenian authorities of fabricating the case to stop him campaigning for a sizable increase in modest pensions paid to thousands of Karabakh war veterans. He pledged to continue his vocal campaign that has received extensive independent media coverage in recent months.
The statement was circulated just hours after it emerged that Avetisian will be covered by a general amnesty planned by the authorities. The colonel’s lawyer, Ara Zakarian, denied any connection between the amnesty and his client’s belated first reaction to his arrest.
Avetisian rose to prominence after staging a lone protest in Yerevan’s Liberty Square in May to demand pension hikes. Dozens of other veterans joined his campaign, gathering there on an almost daily basis.
Throughout the summer they repeatedly marched to the Prime Minister’s Office and other government buildings in Yerevan to press their demands. The protesters led by Avetisian also attracted hundreds of people to weekly demonstrations held by them in the square in August.
“We believe that this arrest is aimed at stifling our social struggle,” one of the protesting veterans, Karen Melikbekian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Tuesday. “They arrested our leader. But in this fight every freedom fighter is a leader. Can they arrest all of them?
Another veteran, Gagik Sarukhanian, claimed that Avetisian was jailed because his campaign was increasingly turning into a fight for “regime change.”