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A veteran Armenian politician arrested in late 2015 strongly denies plotting to assassinate President Serzh Sarkisian and seize power together with members of a clandestine militant group, his lawyer said on Monday.

Vahan Shirkhanian, a former deputy defense minister, is one of the 20 individuals who went on trial on coup charges last December. Most of them were detained in November 2015 in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan. Armenian security forces found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.

More than two dozen other people, among them Shirkhanian, were arrested in the following weeks. Some of them were subsequently released pending investigation.

The arrested group was apparently led by Artur Vartanian, a 35-year-old obscure man who reportedly lived in Spain until his return to Armenia in April 2015.

Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that the core members of Vartanian’s group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment) underwent secret military training in an Armenian village in August-September 2015. It says that Vartanian and his associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan.

Armenia - An alleged 2015 photograph of members of an Armenian militant group arrested on coup charges.
Armenia - An alleged 2015 photograph of members of an Armenian militant group arrested on coup charges.

According to the indictment, Shirkhanian agreed to participate in the alleged plot and suggested that the armed group assassinate President Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure of the key state buildings.The 70-year-old denies the accusations as politically motivated, according to his lawyer, Hayk Alumian.

Alumian said that the criminal case against Shirkhanian is based on what he considers illegal wiretaps of his client’s face-to-face conversation with Vartanian. “The content [of the conversation] is equivocal and can be interpreted in different ways,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Mr. Shirkhanian says that he had no conversations of that kind. I don’t exclude that the recording was somehow doctored.”

The lawyer also insisted that while Shirkhanian did meet the alleged ringleader and speak with him about political issues their conversation cannot be construed as an anti-government conspiracy.“Mr. Shirkhanian never took Artur Vartanian and his statements seriously,” he said.

Vartanian also rejects the coup charges. His lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, did not deny last year that Vartanian set up the shadowy group and acquired firearms and explosives for it. But Baghdasarian insisted that his client never intended to seize government buildings in Yerevan.

Armenia - Artur Vartanian, the main defendant in the trial of 20 people accused of plotting a coup détat, at a courtroom in Yerevan, 17Mar2017.
Armenia - Artur Vartanian, the main defendant in the trial of 20 people accused of plotting a coup détat, at a courtroom in Yerevan, 17Mar2017.

Shirkhanian 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 which left Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament 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 Shirkhanian’s resignation in May 2000.

Shirkhanian supported, as a senior member of a small opposition party, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s failed bid to return to power in the 2008 presidential election. He split from that party in 2010.

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