Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former top military commander general linked to an Armenian opposition group, was sentenced to six years in prison on Tuesday on charges of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering which he strongly denies.
A court in Yerevan also sentenced two other men, who went on trial with Babayan in July, to three and two years’ imprisonment. The four other defendants in the high-profile trial received suspended jail terms ranging from two to two and a half years.
Babayan was arrested in March this year after Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claimed to have confiscated a surface-to-air rocket system smuggled to the country. The arrest came about two weeks before Armenia’s last parliamentary elections. Babayan was unofficially affiliated with the ORO alliance led by former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and two other opposition politicians. ORO condemned the criminal case as politically motivated.
Babayan likewise alleged political motives behind his prosecution in his concluding remarks at the trial made on Monday. He claimed that shortly after his arrest some officials “spoke of politics” with him and “explained why they caught me.” He declined to name them, while saying that he know where the “order” to jail him came from.
Also, the once powerful general again denied prosecutors’ claims that he promised to pay other defendants, notably his longtime associate Sanasar Gabrielian, $50,000 for the delivery of the shoulder-fired Igla rocket.
Gabrielian, who received the three-year prison sentence, stated during the trial that it was he who commissioned the confiscated Igla. He claimed that he wanted to donate the launcher along with its shoulder-fired rockets to Nagorno-Karabakh’s army.
Gabrielian insisted he only showed Babayan a photograph of the Igla system because the latter “knows everything” about weapons. Babayan, he said, advised him to hide the weapon in a remote Karabakh village and then anonymously tip off the Karabakh military about that.
Babayan echoed this version of events on Monday. “As regards the Igla, it has nothing to do with me, there is no evidence,” he said.
A trial prosecutor maintained on November 13 that law-enforcement authorities have presented sufficient evidence of Babayan’s guilt. The prosecution has never clarified, however, why the former Karabakh army chief sought to get hold of the Russian-made rocket designed to shoot down planes and helicopters.
“They have duly executed the order,” Babayan declared tartly when the presiding judge, Arshak Zakarian, read out the guilty verdict.
Asked by reporters in the courtroom whether he believes the “order” was issued by President Serzh Sarkisian, Babayan replied: “You said so.” He also declined to clarify whether he considers himself a political prisoner.
Meanwhile, Babayan’s lawyer, Avetis Kalashian, said that his client will appeal against the “extremely harsh” verdict.
Babayan, 52, led Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army from 1993-1999 and was widely regarded as the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man at that time. He was arrested in 2000 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of the then Karabakh president, Arkady Ghukasian.
Immediately after being set free in 2004, Babayan relocated to Yerevan where he set up an opposition party that fared poorly in Armenian parliamentary elections held in 2007. He emigrated to Russia in 2011 for still unclear reasons.
The retired general returned to Armenia in May 2016, citing the increased risk of renewed war with Azerbaijan. He has repeatedly criticized Armenia’s and Karabakh’s current governments since then.