Several dozen Armenian veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war gathered outside a Yerevan court on Friday to demand the release of their four comrades accused of being part of a militant group that allegedly plotted high-profile assassinations.
One of them, Vladimir Arakelian, was arrested on Thursday along with a well-known opposition politician, Garnik Markarian, as part of a criminal investigation into the case conducted by the National Security Service (NSS).
Arakelian, who was a prominent field commander during the 1991-1994 war, was expected to be formally remanded them in pre-trial custody on Friday. However, he did not appear before the court apparently because of a poor health condition.
Arakelian’s lawyer, Ara Nalbandian, met him earlier in the day. Nalbandian said his client denied any involvement in the conspiracy alleged by the NSS.
Arakelian’s protesting comrades claimed that the Armenian authorities have implicated Arakelian and three other arrested veterans in the alleged plot for political reasons. “They want to get rid of people who do not come to terms with the situation in the country,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Gagik Melkonian, a retired army general and former deputy defense minister, was also among the protesters. “Those who participated in various protests are now arrested one by one,” he said.
According to the NSS, the group led by the 34-year-old Artur Vartanian plotted a string of political assassinations. NSS officers arrested Vartanian and a dozen other people in late November when they raided a house in Yerevan and found an arms cache there.
Vartanian announced the existence of his organization on social media in early 2015 with a video purportedly shot in Kassab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria that was overrun by Islamist rebels in March 2014. He says that it never planned to kill senior officials or anybody else in Armenia.
One of the protesting war veterans, Garnik Sadoyan, met with Vartanian shortly before the latter’s arrest. Sadoyan said the nationalist activist offered him to travel to Syria and defend Kassab together with other Armenians. He said neither he nor other veterans discussed armed attacks within Armenia.
Sadoyan insisted that the veterans would never target President Serzh Sarkisian or members of his government because they “fought with him for Karabakh.” “I’m going to send a letter to the president which will say, ‘How can you suspect us? You were one of us. How could we shoot at you?’”