Two former Defense Ministry officials admitted on Friday disclosing a secret government order that paved the way for the Armenian military’s involvement in the suppression of the 2008 opposition protests in Yerevan.
Armen Sargsian, the former head of the ministry’s construction department, and one of his former subordinates, Lyusia Ayvazian, pleaded guilty to corresponding criminal charges leveled against them as they went on trial in a district court in the capital.
The two were arrested earlier this year and accused of leaking the document to the pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” in December. The paper was quick to publish it, raising more questions about the use of deadly force against thousands of opposition protesters that barricaded themselves in the city center on March 1-2, 2008.
The written directive was signed on February 23, 2008 by then Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian immediately after the outgoing President Robert Kocharian ordered Armenia’s top security officials to thwart what he called attempts by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian to “seize power by illegal means.” Kocharian referred to non-stop demonstrations staged by Ter-Petrosian following the hotly disputed February 19 presidential election.
The directive placed Armenia’s armed forces on high alert and ordered the Defense Ministry to form special groups of officers and hand them weapons. Harutiunian also instructed the then commander of the army’s Yerevan garrison, General Yuri Khachaturov, to form a special command structure with essentially unlimited control over military units stationed in and around the Armenian capital.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) denounced the leaked document as illegal, saying that the so-called “administration of garrison commander” effectively assumed the powers of the army’s General Staff in violation of Armenia’s constitution. HAK leaders presented it as further proof that Kocharian illegally used the military to quell the protests that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured.
The Armenian government rejects these claims. In a February letter to an HAK lawyer, the government said the controversial order did not require or amount to “use of the Armed Forces.” It said the high alert ordered by the defense minister was a routine action taken “at the tactical level of army management.”
State prosecutors, meanwhile, pressed the accusations of disclosure of a state secret brought against Sargsian and Ayvazian. They demanded two and a half years’ imprisonment for Sargsian and a 18-month suspended jail sentence for Ayvazian at the start of the trial on Friday.
The main trial prosecutor, Aram Amirzadian, told the court of first instance of Yerevan’s Nor-Nork and Avan districts that Sargsian obtained a photocopy of the secret ministerial order from Ayvazian in November, one year after being dismissed from the Defense Ministry. Ayvazian still worked at the ministry department formerly headed by him at that point.
Both defendants pleaded guilty to the accusations and asked the judge to conduct the trial under a so-called accelerated procedure. Sargsian claimed that he did not know that the controversial directive was classified and not subject to publication.
Sargsian’s former lawyers dismissed the charges as “fabricated” in early February. They said that their client was prosecuted because of a long-running feud with current Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian.
The ex-official denied these claims and replaced the two lawyers by another defense counsel three days later.