A veteran politician who had held senior positions in Armenia’s government in the 1990s was detained at the weekend in an ongoing investigation into political assassinations that were allegedly plotted by dozens of other arrested Armenians.
Vahan Shirkhanian was taken into custody on suspicion of being part of a clandestine organization which the National Security Service (NSS) says planned to murder Armenian officials and commit other “unprecedented” crimes. He was expected to be formally charged and remanded in pre-trial custody on Monday.
The NSS and the Armenian police arrested ten people late last month when they raided a house in Yerevan and claimed to have found a weapons cache. At least 11 more people were arrested in the following days.
The NSS declined on Saturday to specify the total number of detainees. Some Armenian media outlets have put at about 50.
The arrested people are said to be members of an obscure nationalist group led by Artur Vartanian, a 34-year-old Armenian national who reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia in April this year. The group announced its existence on social media early this year with a video purportedly shot in Kassab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria that was overrun by Islamist rebels in March 2014. A senior NSS official said on November 27 that investigators are looking into the possibility of Vartanian having ties with armed groups operating in Syria.
The U.S. Embassy in Armenia implied three days later that the Armenian authorities have asked the United States to assist in the probe. “These allegations are serious, and the United States will consider Armenian requests to aid in its investigation,” the embassy said in a statement.
NSS officers detained Shirkhanian immediately after searching his Yerevan apartment. “He was taken by surprise,” Shirkhanian’s lawyer, Tigran Ter-Yesayan, said afterwards.
Ter-Yesayan was allowed to visit him later on Saturday. He said his client strongly denies any involvement in the alleged murder plots.
Shirkhanian’s wife Burastan likewise dismissed the case as “fabricated.” “We are shocked and confused,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We have never seen or heard about those people.”
She said her husband knows personally only one of the detained suspects: the Armenian Catholic priest Anton Totonjian. “We are Catholics,” she explained, adding that the two men first met “several months ago.”
Shirkhanian, 68, was a prominent member of Armenia’s first post-Communist government that came to power in 1990. He served as deputy defense minister before being appointed in June 1999 as deputy prime minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.
Shirkhanian became particularly influential in the wake of the October 1999 armed attack on the Armenian parliament that left Sarkisian, speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials dead. He led government factions that suspected then President Robert Kocharian of masterminding the killings and tried unsuccessfully to unseat him. Kocharian’s eventual victory in the power struggle resulted in Skhirkhanian’s resignation in May 2000.
Shirkhanian supported, as a senior member of a small opposition party, former Levon Ter-Petrosian’s failed bid to return to power in the 2008 presidential election. He and several other politicians split from that party in 2010, saying that they no longer regard “regime change” in Armenia as a top priority.
A native of Georgia, Shirkhanian has long been known as a staunch backer of Armenia’s close ties with Russia. He reaffirmed his views in an interview with the Russian news agency Sputnik given just a few days before his arrest.
“We need to continue developing relations and more actively cooperate with our fried and number one ally: Russia,” Shirkhanian said, commenting on security-related implications of Russia’s bitter dispute with Turkey.