Several dozen supporters of Zhirayr Sefilian rallied in downtown Yerevan on Thursday to demand the immediate release of the radical opposition leader prosecuted on what they consider politically motivated charges.
The small crowd also demanded that the Armenian authorities free other “political prisoners” as it marched to the presidential administration building.
One of detainees, Gevorg Safarian, is a senior member of Sefilian’s New Armenia Public Salvation Front. He was arrested in January for allegedly assaulting a police officer during an anti-government protest.
Sefilian was taken into custody on June 20 for allegedly acquiring large quantities of weapons and cobbling together an attack squad with the aim of seizing government buildings and other important facilities in Yerevan. Armenian law-enforcement authorities also announced the arrest of six other individuals.
The outspoken oppositionist, who strongly denies the charges, was formally charged with only illegal acquisition and possession of weapons and ammunition, however.
“The authorities are arresting and jailing opposition figures that tell the truth,” a New Armenia activist told the protesters during Thursday’s rally.
“Free all political prisoners,” another activist shouted through a megaphone.
The protest organizers repeated New Armenia claims that Sefilian was prosecuted because he planned to thwart Armenian territorial concessions which President Serzh Sarkisian allegedly plans to make to Azerbaijan.
Just over a week before his arrest, Sefilian announced plans to set up a new anti-government group which he said will strive to topple Sarkisian “with the help of the people and the army.”
Sefilian’s supporters took to the streets as Armenia’s Court of Appeals began hearings on his lawyers’ appeal against his pre-trial detention. One of the lawyers, Ara Zakarian, said on Wednesday that he does not expect the court to defy prosecutors and free his client.
New Armenia insists that none of the other arrested men are affiliated with the opposition movement. At least one of those suspects, Nerses Poghosian, also denies any involvement in the alleged coup plot.
“Nerses does not even know Zhirayr Sefilian,” his lawyer, Nina Karapetiants, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). She said Armenia’s Investigative Committee has still not substantiated the charges levelled against Poghosian.
The Investigative Committee spokeswoman, Sona Truzian, insisted, however, that the law-enforcement agency does have sufficient evidence. “But the evidence is not subject to publication at this stage,” she said.