By Astghik BedevianAn Armenian appeals court on Friday refused to release a prominent veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh from jail pending investigation into his alleged plot to overthrow the country’s leadership.
The Court of Appeals upheld a February 10 lower court ruling that allowed investigators from the National Security Service (NSS) to keep nationalist activist Zhirayr Sefilian in pre-trial custody for two more months.
Sefilian and a leading member of a small opposition party, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested and charged with calling for a “violent overthrow” of the government in early December just days after setting up a new organization opposed to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The NSS claims that the group, called the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers (HKH), planned to mount an armed uprising against the government during this year’s parliamentary elections.
Both Sefilian, who is a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, and Malkhasian, deny the charges. Armenia’s leading opposition groups have voiced solidarity with the two suspects, condemning the case as politically motivated.
The appeals court’s decision came in response to an appeal filed by Sefilian’s lawyer Vahe Grigorian who maintains that his client will not hamper the ongoing inquiry if he is set free. NSS officers claimed the opposite during a three-hour court session that preceded the ruling. About 40 Sefilian supporters protested outside the court house in the meantime.
“The court was not impartial, it was extremely biased against Zhirayr,” Grigorian told RFE/RL. “It has no grounds to keep him under arrest.”
The lawyer denounced as “shameful” the fact that the courts also refused to free Sefilian on bail on the grounds that he is not an Armenian national. The Court of Appeals is to consider a similar petition by Malkhasian’s lawyer later this month.
The main piece of evidence cited by the investigators is a December 2 indoors meeting of about a hundred HKH activists. Addressing them, Sefilian warned that “we will crack the head of anyone who will dare to surrender land” to Azerbaijan. He also urged supporters to organize themselves before attempting to “solve the matter with arms.” Sefilian’s lawyer insists that this alone can not be construed as a coup attempt.
Also, on December 30 the NSS claimed to have found a massive cache of weapons and ammunition in the village house of Vahan Aroyan, one of Sefilian’s former comrades-in-arms. Aroyan has since been kept under arrest. According to media reports, he has not given any incriminating testimony against the Lebanese-Armenian.
The defense lawyers say the discovered weapons are irrelevant to the case, arguing that Aroyan was not involved in Sefilian’s political activities.