The main defendants in the trial of 20 people prosecuted on coup charges insisted on Friday that they did not plot to overthrow Armenia’s government.
One of them, Artur Vartanian, admitted acquiring weapons and ammunition for his militant group but said it never intended to seize power or assassinate President Serzh Sarkisian.
“This [case] is false and aimed showing the people that they can put anyone on trial,” Vartanian told reporters at the start of the latest court hearing in the trial. “There are no criminals here.”
“If we live in a democratic country, then power belongs to the people and, therefore, to me, to all of us. I can’t seize something that belongs to me,” he said.
Vartanian lived in Spain before returning to Armenia in April 2015 and setting up his group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment). He and more than a dozen other persons were arrested when Armenian security forces raided the group’s hideout in Yerevan in November 2015. They found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) arrested more people in the following weeks. They included former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and Father Anton Totonjian, an Armenia Catholic priest based in Gyumri. Totonjian was released from pre-trial custody in January 2016 despite being charged with financing the alleged conspiracy.
The NSS claims that Vartanian and his associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament and state television buildings in Yerevan. It says they also explored ways of shooting down President Sarkisian’s plane.
All 20 defendants have pleaded not guilty to the accusations carrying up to ten years in prison. Vartanian demonstratively read a book in the courtroom as the trial prosecutor spent more than an hour presenting the indictment. Totonjian sat next to him in the dock.
The 71-year-old priest acknowledged that he paid Vartanian $60,000 but insisted that the money was not meant to support the alleged coup bid. “Our most important issue was Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh),” he told journalists. “Only that. I won’t tell you more.”
The prosecutor said at the previous court hearing 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 Karabakh conflict.
Shirkhanian, the other prominent defendant, stands accused of having told Vartanian that the armed group should assassinate Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure of key state buildings. The veteran politician on Friday again dismissed the accusation as politically motivated.