Armenia’s Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a controversial six-year prison sentence given to a retired army colonel who was arrested last year after organizing anti-government protests by fellow veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A district court in Yerevan convicted Volodya Avetisian in July of having “embezzled” $2,000 from another man through a false promise to have his grandson exempted from compulsory military service. Avetisian and his supporters strongly deny charge, calling it government retribution for his campaign for a sizable increase in modest pensions paid to the veterans.
The campaign began in May 2013 with a lone protest staged by Avetisian in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. He was joined by hundreds of other war veterans in the following weeks. They staged a series of demonstrations outside key government buildings in Yerevan.
Avetisian was arrested and charged with fraud in September. The authorities and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian in particular deny any political motives behind the high-profile case. Ohanian, who is also a war veteran, repeatedly met with the colonel and his comrades in summer 2013 to discuss their demands. He subsequently accused Avetisian of breaching unpublicized “agreements” reached by them.
The Court of Appeals rejected Avetisian’s appeal against the July verdict after a single hearing that lasted for several hours. It also refused to question Ohanian, something which was demanded by Ara Zakarian, the defense lawyer.
The decision infuriated the defendant’s friends and relatives present in the courtroom. “Shame on the court!” shouted one of them.
“We were right to think that there are no independent courts in Armenia,” said Gagik Sarukhanian, another war veteran.
Zakarian, Avetisian’s lawyer, condemned the ruling as “illegal” and said he will appeal to the higher Court of Cassation.