A trial prosecutor claimed on Friday that an Armenia Catholic priest financed members of a militant group that allegedly plotted to seize power in Armenia before being arrested in November 2015.
The cleric, Father Anton Totonjian, was taken into custody shortly after Armenian security forces raided the group’s hideout in Yerevan. They found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there and arrested more than a dozen persons led by Artur Vartanian.
Vartanian lived in Spain before returning to Armenia in April 2015 and setting up his group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment). The National Security Service (NSS) claims 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.
Totonjian, who ran a Catholic radio station in Gyumri, was released from custody in January 2016 but still went on trial together with Vartanian and 18 other men in December. “Everything is fabricated,” the 71-year-old priest told journalists at the start of the trial.
Addressing a district court in Yerevan, one of the prosecutors at the trial claimed that Totonjian and Vartanian repeatedly met in April and May 2015 to discuss the situation in Armenia. He said they agreed that Armenia’s current leadership should be forcibly overthrown because of failing to address socioeconomic problems and being ready to make concessions to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Having an experience of armed actions and military skills, Artur Vartanian undertook to create, with the aim of seizing power, a criminal association the full financing of which Anton Dikran Totonjian pledged to ensure,” charged the prosecutor. He said the priest paid Vartanian $60,000 in several installments.
The alleged ringleader also denies the coup charges levelled against him. “Artur Vartanian is not only rejecting the deeds attributed to him but also considers the accusations fabricated,” his lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Friday.
Baghdasarian earlier did not deny that Vartanian set up the shadowy group and acquired firearms and explosives for it. But he insisted that his client never intended to seize government buildings.
A senior NSS official said last year that Vartanian secretly filmed President Serzh Sarkisian when the latter attended the consecration in September 2015 of a newly built Armenian Catholic church in Gyumri. He said the alleged coup plotter wore a church choir robe during the ceremony to avoid attracting presidential bodyguards’ attention.
Among the defendants in the ongoing high-profile trial is Vahan Shirkhanian, a former deputy defense minister. According to the NSS, Shirkhanian agreed to participate in the alleged plot and suggested that the armed group assassinate Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure of the key state buildings. The 70-year-old denies the accusations as politically motivated.