Law-enforcement authorities in Georgia have extradited to Armenia a man accused of providing a sophisticated weapon to Samvel Babayan, the jailed army general linked to an Armenian opposition group, it emerged on Wednesday.
The 40-year-old Armenian national, Robert Aghvanian, was detained in Tbilisi in late March just days after Babayan’s controversial arrest.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said at the time that the former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army paid two other arrested suspects to smuggle a shoulder-fired surface-to-air rocket from or through Georgia. It claimed to have found and confiscated the Russian-made Igla system in Karabakh.
Subsequent NSS statements were more ambiguous about the origin of the weapon. Investigators said only that Aghvanian delivered the weapon in return for $38,000 that was promised by Sanasar Gabrielian, a longtime Babayan associate. Gabrielian allegedly acted on the general’s orders.
Babayan repeatedly denied the accusations as baseless before being sentenced to six years in prison by a Yerevan court late last month. Gabrielian, who received a three-year prison sentence, insisted at their trial that it was he, not Babayan, who commissioned the confiscated Igla.
The two men were arrested 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. The opposition bloc failed to win any parliament seats.
According to Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, Aghvanian was extradited from Georgia on Monday. He has already been formally charged with illegal arms acquisition and smuggling, the law-enforcement agency said in a statement.
Babayan’s lawyer, Avetis Kalashian, said he does not expect the extradition to seriously influence his client’s fate. “It cannot have any impact on Samvel Babayan because they definitely did not know each other,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Samvel Babayan did not know personally any of the other suspects except Sanasar Gabrielian,” insisted Kalashian.
Neither the NSS nor the prosecutors have clarified yet why the once powerful general would seek to get hold of the rocket designed to shoot down planes and helicopters.
Babayan, who led Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army from 1993-1999, emigrated to Russia in 2011 and returned to Armenia in May 2016, citing the increased risk of renewed war with Azerbaijan. He strongly criticized Armenia’s and Karabakh’s current governments in the following months.
Babayan was already 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. He was set free in 2004.