By Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian authorities have moved to deport a prominent Lebanese-Armenian opposition figure and veteran of the war with Azerbaijan controversially imprisoned by them in late 2006, his lawyer confirmed on Friday.
Zhirayr Sefilian, who is not a citizen of Armenia despite having lived there for the past 17 years, will complete on June 9 a 18-month prison sentence handed to him for illegal arms possession. Reports about his imminent deportation surfaced earlier this week. Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian did not deny them in parliament on Wednesday.
According to his defense counsel, Vahe Grigorian, the administration of Yerevan’s Vartashen prison has informed Sefilian that the national police decided to ask Armenia’s Administrative Court to sanction his expulsion to Lebanon. Grigorian said the police have already filed a corresponding lawsuit on the grounds that his client’s residency permit has expired. The lawyer and Sefilian’s supporters believe, however, that the extraordinary move is politically motivated.
Sefilian and another renowned war veteran, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested and charged with calling for a violent overthrow of the government in December 2006 just days after setting up a new pressure group opposed to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. A Yerevan court found Malkhasian guilty on that count and sentenced him to two years in prison in August 2007. The same court cleared Sefilian of the charge but still jailed him for 18 months for illegally possessing a pistol which he had received as a gift from a former commander of the Karabakh Armenian army.
The two men, known for their harsh criticism of Armenia’s leadership, claim that they were imprisoned for their pledge to fight against fraud in the May 2007 parliamentary elections and the presidential ballot held last February. They both endorsed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian in the presidential race despite his conciliatory line on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Sefilian made clear that he will continue to campaign for regime change in Armenia after regaining freedom.
The Lebanese national has been twice denied Armenian citizenship despite his active participation in the 1991-1994 war in Karabakh that earned him the military rank of lieutenant-colonel. He commanded one of the Karabakh Armenian units that stormed and seized the strategic town of Shushi in May 1992.
In Grigorian’s words, Sefilian’s deportation would be illegal under Armenia’s law on foreign residents. “By law Zhirayr Sefilian can not be deported from the Republic of Armenia in view of the fact that he has two underage children,” he told RFE/RL. “Not to mention other, political and moral, considerations.”