One of the opposition gunmen who seized a police station in Yerevan in July has been charged with killing a police officer during their two-week standoff with Armenian security forces, it emerged on Tuesday.
Smbat Barseghian is the first member of the armed group to face a murder charge in the ongoing criminal investigation into the attack. He and 43 other individuals kept under arrest have until now been accused of only seizing state buildings, taking hostages or illegally acquiring weapons.
The gunmen seized the police compound in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district on July 17 to demand President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and the release of Zhirayr Sefilian, the jailed leader of their Founding Parliament radical opposition group.
One of the police officers shot in the attack, Colonel Artur Vanoyan, died on the spot. Another officer, Gagik Mkrtchian, succumbed to his chest and abdomen wounds on August 13.
The third police casualty, Yuri Tepanosian, was killed on July 30, the day before the 20 remaining gunmen holed up in the Erebuni compound surrendered to the Armenian authorities. The police said the 30-year-old Tepanosian was shot by one of the gunmen as he sat in a police car parked about 400 meters from the besieged compound.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Tuesday that Barseghian stands accused of murdering Tepanosian.
Armenia - The funeral in Yerevan of Yuri Tepanosian, an Armenian police officer killed during a standoff between security forces and opposition gunmen, 1Aug2016.
Barseghian’s lawyer, Hayk Alumian, said his client denies the murder charge but declined to comment further. “I can only say that Smbat Barseghian does not consider himself guilty,” said Alumian.
During the Erebuni standoff, the gunmen’s leader, Varuzhan Avetisian, insisted that Tepanosian was not gunned down by his armed group. Avetisian said the officer’s car was not even visible from the compound.
The police responded by releasing photographs meant to disprove Avetisian’s claims. They also circulated a short video purportedly showing a man with a sniper rifle taking a position on the roof of a police building inside the compound.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS), which is leading a criminal inquiry into the attack, said on October 25 that it has identified all individuals who killed the three police officers. Only Barseghian appears to have been formally charged with murder so far.
The SIS also said that a total of 62 people, including the 31 gunmen, have been charged in connection with the Erebuni attack. Forty-four of them are kept in pre-trial detention, while two others remain on the run, according to the law-enforcement agency.
Law-enforcement authorities may also implicate several opposition politicians, who organized rallies in support of the gunmen, in the attack.
One of those rallies took place on July 29 in Yerevan’s Sari Tagh neighborhood overlooking the seized policy facility. Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters after they refused to march back to the city center.
Armenia - Riot police disperse protesters in Yerevan's Sari Tagh neighborhood, 29Jul2016.
More than 60 people were seriously injured and hospitalized in the crackdown condemned by the Armenian opposition and human rights groups. About two dozen journalists covering the Sari Tagh protest, including three RFE/RL correspondents, were beaten up by plainclothes men.
Several organizers of the protest were arrested and charged with inciting “mass disturbances.” All but one of them were released from custody in the following weeks.
The prosecutors announced on Monday that the official probe of the Sari Tagh violence has been incorporated into the broader criminal case on the Erebuni attack. They said investigators have collected evidence showing that the opposition figures led thousands of supporters to Sari Tagh on July 29 with the aim of breaking through police cordons and joining the besieged gunmen.
One of those oppositionists, Armen Martirosian, dismissed that claim. “Thank God, there is lots of video footage which shows that citizens stood peacefully [at Sari Tagh,]” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Martirosian’s lawyer, Givi Hovannisian, suggested that the authorities may be preparing ground for also charging the oppositionists with aiding the gunmen.