The lawyer for a man accused of setting up a clandestine paramilitary organization insisted on Thursday that he did not plan to seize key government buildings and forcibly remove President Serzh Sarkisian from power.
But while strongly denying coup charges levelled against Artur Vartanian, Levon Baghdasarian again refused to comment on the goals of a shadowy group that was apparently led by his client.
Vartanian and a dozen other individuals were arrested in late November in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan that was jointly conducted by the Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS). The law-enforcement bodies found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there. They made more than 20 other arrests in the following weeks.
A senior NSS investigator, Mikael Hambardzumian, said on Wednesday that Vartanian set up the group called the Armenian Shield Regiment last year with the aim of staging a coup d’etat in Armenia. He released several pieces of what the NSS regards as evidence of the armed conspiracy.
Hambardzumian claimed that Vartanian and his associates also considered blowing up President Serzh Sarkisian’s plane on December 1.
Baghdasarian brushed aside the allegations. “There may have been some discussions,” the lawyer told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “I can’t rule that out. But I will rule out that the group led by Artur Vartanian planned to commit such despicable crimes.”
Asked why Vartanian’s group acquired the weapons and what it planned to accomplish with them, he said: “It is the investigators that must answer this question.” When pressed on his client’s goals,the lawyer said he will explain them after the NSS completes its investigation into the high-profile case.
Vartanian, 34, reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia last April. A 2015 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 NSS’s Hambardzumian said on Wednesday, that investigators have identified and charged the person who financed the alleged plot. But he implied that the “financer” has not been arrested.
Vartanian’s attorney described this claim as “strange,” challenging the NSS to name the mastermind and explain why he or she remains at large.