Two young women arrested in Yerevan in November deny any involvement in what Armenian law-enforcement authorities call a conspiracy to assassinate senior state officials, their lawyer said on Thursday.
Marine Katanian, 34, and her 25-year-old sister Asya Mkrtchian were among a dozen individuals detained in a dawn raid on a Yerevan house conducted by the Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS). The security forces found large quantities of weapons stashed there.
At least 14 more people, among them two veteran politicians, were arrested in the following weeks. The NSS says that the detainees were part of a militant group that plotted high-profile assassinations. It says that the group was led by Artur Vartanian, another detainee.
Vartanian reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia last April. Earlier in 2015, the 34-year-old announced the establishment of a nationalist group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment). A video posted on Facebook showed a uniform-clad Vartanian reading out a statement in front of nine other armed men who also wore army fatigues. He said the Armenian Shield will put up “armed resistance to terrorists” threatening Armenians in Syria and other parts of the world.
The lawyer for the arrested sisters, Inessa Petrosian, said Katanian joined the Armenian Shield as an “adviser” while Mkrtchian cooperated with Vartanian because he promised to help her enroll in the Armenian army.
“They had no idea that it’s an armed group,” Petrosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “They only hoped to get jobs in that way. Finding jobs was their only goal. They simply had no other information.”
A Yerevan court ignored these denials when it extended the sisters’ pre-trial detention by two months on Wednesday. It also allowed the NSS to keep Vartanian and several other suspects under arrest.
Vartanian has admitted through a lawyer that he and his associates possessed the firearms and explosives that were confiscated by the NSS. But the lawyer insisted that those weapons were “not directed against Armenia and its citizens.”
The NSS has so far refused to disclose the total number of individuals arrested in the ongoing investigation into the alleged terror plot. Petrosian said that according to her information the number of arrested suspects exceeds 30.