Samvel Babayan, a retired army general recently convicted of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering, insisted on his innocence as Armenia’s Court of Appeals opened hearings in the high-profile case on Monday.
A district court in Yerevan sentenced Babayan to six years in prisons in November at the end of a four-month trial that also involved six other defendants. Two of them were sentenced to three and two years’ imprisonment, while the four others received suspended jail terms.
Babayan was arrested in March 2017 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 has repeatedly 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, insisted 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.
Both defendants appealed against the guilty verdict handed down by the lower court. Speaking at the start of Court of Appeals hearings, Babayan accused a trial prosecutor of deliberately omitting key facts which he said prove his and Gabrielian’s innocence. The court rejected his demand for the prosecutor, Aram Aramian, to be barred from the case.
Gabrielian charged, meanwhile, that he and the once powerful general were jailed for their involvement in ORO’s activities.
Law-enforcement authorities deny any political motives behind the case. But they have still not explained why Babayan would seek to get hold of the rocket designed to shoot down planes and helicopters.
Late last month, law-enforcement authorities in Georgia extradited to Armenia an Armenian man accused of providing the sophisticated weapon to Babayan. The 40-year-old Robert Aghvanian was detained in Tbilisi just days after Babayan’s controversial arrest.
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. He was set free in 2004.
Babayan criticized the current authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert after returning to Armenia in May 2016 from Russia where he lived for five years in what appeared to be self-imposed exile.