A man recently extradited from Georgia admitted on Friday possessing a sophisticated weapon which was confiscated and used by Armenian law-enforcement authorities in their controversial criminal case against Samvel Babayan, a retired army general linked to an opposition group.
The Armenian national, Robert Aghvanian, insisted at the same time that he never knew Babayan personally or thought that he is selling the shoulder-fired surface-to-air rocket system to the latter.
Aghvanian was detained in Tbilisi in March last year 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 the Igla system from or through Georgia. The NSS claimed to have found and confiscated the Russian-made weapon 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 district court in November. Gabrielian, who received a three-year prison sentence, insisted at their trial that it was he, not Babayan, who commissioned the confiscated Igla. He said he planned to donate it to the Karabakh military.
Both men appealed against what they call a politically motivated verdict. Aghvanian was brought to the Court of Appeals to give evidence at their request.
The 40-year-old told the court that the Igla rocket was for years kept in his house in Echmiadzin. He said it was left over from his father, the town’s former mayor who he said had obtained many weapons for the Armenian army in 1990s.
Aghvanian went on to admit selling the rocket to Hrachya Mayilian, a man who the NSS claims “voluntarily” surrendered it to law-enforcement authorities and avoided imprisonment because of that. “As for what Mayilian did after that, ask him,” he added. “I know neither Mr. Babayan nor Sanasar Gabrielian.”
According to the prosecution, Mayilian is one of the two middlemen through whom Gabrielian purchased the rocket for the once powerful general. In his testimony, Mayilian has not implicated Babayan in the illegal arms deal.
Babayan seized upon Aghvanian’s testimony as further proof that he is innocent. He insisted that the authorities have failed to come up with any compelling evidence to the contrary.
Babayan was arrested about two weeks before Armenia’s last parliamentary elections. He 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.