Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) detained on Thursday two more people, one of them a well-known politician, in a continuing investigation into political assassinations which it says were planned by an obscure Armenian group.
An NSS statement said Garnik Markarian, the leader of a small and largely moribund opposition party called Fatherland and Honor, and Vladimir Arakelian were held on suspicion of being involved in an alleged plot to murder Armenian officials. They are specifically suspected of having helped the group acquire weapons and ammunition, according to the statement.
The NSS and the Armenian police arrested ten people when they raided a house in Yerevan and found a weapons cache there in late November. At least 12 more people were arrested in the following weeks. One of them, Vahan Shirkhanian, is a veteran politician who had held senior security posts in Armenia’s government in the 1990s.
Markarian was taken into custody after his house in Yeghvard, a small town just north of Yerevan, was raided and searched by NSS officers early in the morning. His son Gevorg said the 72-year-old denied having any ties with the alleged plotters when they spoke by phone later in the day. The politician’s wife, Donara Markarian, likewise told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that her husband is innocent.
The NSS described the second suspect, Arakelian, as the main shareholder of a shoe factory located in Yeghvard. The factory was also searched by its officers.
The group in question is led by Artur Vartanian, a 34-year-old Armenian national who reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia last April. It announced its existence on social media in early 2015 with a video purportedly shot in Kassab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria that was overrun by Islamist rebels in March 2014.
Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, said on November 30 that his client denies the grave accusations levelled by the NSS. Baghdasarian acknowledged that Vartanian and his associates possessed the large number of firearms and explosives that were confiscated by the NSS. But he insisted that those weapons were “not directed against Armenia and its citizens.” The lawyer declined to explain how the group planned to use them.
The detainees also include Father Anton Totonjian, a 70-year-old Armenian Catholic priest from Gyumri, and Lilit Torosian, a 30-year-old journalist. They worked for a local Catholic radio station that interviewed Vartanian in 2015. Both Totonjian and Torosian reportedly deny any involvement in the alleged terror plot.