The National Security Service (NSS) said on Friday that it has completed a criminal investigation into a clandestine armed group accused of plotting to seize power in Armenia.
The announcement came one year after more than a dozen individuals were detained in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan jointly conducted by the NSS and the Armenian police. The law-enforcement bodies found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.
The arrested group was apparently led by Artur Vartanian, a 34-year-old Armenian national who reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia in April 2015.
The NSS arrested more than 20 other people in the following weeks. They included an Armenian Catholic priest, Father Anton Totonjian, and two retired politicians, Vahan Shirkhanian and Garnik Markarian. All three men, aged between 69 and 72, denied any involvement in the alleged conspiracy. One of them, Totonjian, was released from pre-trial custody in January.
In a statement, the NSS said that Vartanian, Totonjian, Shirkhanian and Markarian are among 20 suspects who have been formally charged with plotting to seize power. Prosecutors have already sent the criminal case against them to a court in Yerevan, it said, adding that nine other persons are facing less serious charges such as illegal arms possession.
“It has been established that Artur Vartanian, having military kills and combat experience, set up a criminal association with the aim of seizing power,” said the security agency. Vartanian began cobbling together his armed group in May 2015, it said.
A senior NSS investigator, Mikael Hambardzumian, claimed earlier this year that Vartanian and his associates considered blowing up President Serzh Sarkisian’s plane last December. He said they drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan.
According to Hambardzumian, the core members of the group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment) underwent secret military training in Vartanian’s paternal village in central Armenia in August-September 2015. The NSS official released a photograph, purportedly taken in a village house, of 10 masked and armed men standing under an Armenian Shield banner.
Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, strongly denied those claims, saying that his client never intended to seize government buildings and remove Sarkisian from power. But he did not deny that Vartanian set up the shadowy group and acquired firearms and explosives for it.
The lawyer insisted earlier that those weapons were “not directed against Armenia and its citizens.” He did not elaborate.
A 2015 video posted on Facebook showed a uniform-clad Vartanian reading out a statement in front of nine other armed men who also wore army fatigues. He said the Armenian Shield will put up “armed resistance to terrorists” threatening Armenians in Syria and other parts of the world.