By Ruzanna Stepanian
A prominent Karabakh war veteran convicted by a Yerevan court last week has urged the authorities “to stop ruling over the country with violence.”
Zhirayr Sefilian, who was acquitted by the lower court of the charge of calling for a violent overthrow of government but found guilty of a lesser charge of illegal arms possession, said in an RFE/RL interview on Monday that what happened to him and his two friends during the past eight months was a case of flagrant violence used by the authorities.
“It is a violence to jail an innocent person who did not commit any crime. I want to remind that violence begets violence. The sooner they stop this violence, the better it will be for them,” said Sefilian, who was sentenced to 18-month imprisonment for possessing a gun presented to him as a gift by Karabakh’s former defense minister Samvel Babayan in 1998.
Sefilian’s lawyer has already appealed the verdict at a higher court. Sefilian, who has already spent eight months in pre-trial detention, believes the case will be solved in his favor. And even if the appeals court upholds the verdict, Sefilian believes he has all grounds to be released on parole having served a third of his sentence.
Sefilian, a Lebanese citizen, thinks that what happened to him and his fellow combatants Vartan Malkhasian and Vahan Aroyan was a retribution for their firm stand on the Karabakh issue opposing any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan and also for their contacts with Armenia’s opposition forces.
Vartan Malkhasian, a senior member of Sefilian’s hard-line pressure group called the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers, was found guilty on the sole charge of calling for a violent overthrow of government and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The third defendant in the case, Vahan Aroyan, who had been charged only with illegal arms possession, was found guilty and sentenced to 18-month imprisonment.
Prosecutors based the criminal case against Sefilian and Malkhasian mainly on the two men’s speeches at the December 2, 2006 founding congress of their organization. Sefilian and Malkhasian were arrested soon after that. Aroyan was arrested later after National Security Service (NSS) investigators found an arms cache hidden in his village house in southern Armenia.
The NSS also claimed Sefilian and Malkhasian planned to mount an armed uprising against the government ahead of the parliamentary elections in May.
Both protested their innocence all along and denounced the case as politically motivated.
Sefilian primarily addresses his critical remarks to President Robert Kocharian whom he accuses of personally ordering their imprisonment.
He claims they have repeatedly received warnings in connection with their activities.
“But they saw it was impossible and had to do something. But for those speeches, they would have anyway made up something to have us arrested in December,” Sefilian told RFE/RL.
Sefilian, who refuses to accept the results of the 2003 presidential election that reelected Robert Kocharian Armenia’s president, claims the authorities had on many occasions tried to “bribe” him by offering various privileges.
“But I said it’s impossible to achieve a positive result in this system. Either my service will be pointless, or I will become corrupt myself,” Sefilian said.
Now Sefilian believes they will still remain a factor in the upcoming presidential election despite the punishment imposed on them, which many observers claim was used to eliminate the nationalist activists from politics.
“For people like us it is not a punishment. It is a struggle. No one can tell us to keep silent for five months,” Sefilian said. “Do not let the people have the impression that we are weak because we are imprisoned. They [the authorities] have committed such crimes that they don’t know how to get away with them now.”