Samvel Babayan, a retired army general critical of Armenia’s former leadership, was set free on Friday more than six months after being controversially sentenced to six years in prison for illegal arms acquisition and money laundering.
The Court of Cassation, the highest body of criminal justice in the country, overturned the guilty verdict that was upheld by a lower appeals court in February and said the case must be investigated anew. In the meantime, it said, Babayan must be released from custody.
The high court also freed two other men who were tried with Babayan and sentenced to three and two years’ imprisonment last November.
The court cited letters from more than a dozen Armenian parliamentarians guaranteeing that Babayan will cooperate with law-enforcement and judicial authorities if set free. Each of those lawmakers also posted bail worth 500,000 drams (just over $1,000).
Babayan, 52, was the commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He was widely regarded as the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man at that time.
Babayan 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 authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert after returning to Armenia in May 2016 from Russia where he lived for five years.
The once powerful general was again 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 unofficially coordinated the election campaign of the ORO alliance led by former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and two other opposition politicians. ORO condemned the criminal case as politically motivated.
Babayan repeatedly denied prosecutors’ claims that he promised to pay his longtime associate Sanasar Gabrielian $50,000 for the delivery of the shoulder-fired Igla rocket. Gabrielian, who received the three-year prison sentence, claimed that he wanted to donate the launcher along with its shoulder-fired rockets to the Karabakh army.
Babayan was greeted by several dozen supporters when he emerged from a prison in downtown Yerevan in the afternoon. Speaking to reporters, he said that he was jailed because former President Serzh Sarkisian sought to prevent ORO from winning any seats in the parliament.
Law-enforcement authorities have until now denied political motives behind the case. They never explained why Babayan would seek to get hold of the rocket designed to shoot down planes and helicopters.
Babayan’s release from prison was clearly made possible by the recent change of Armenia’s government. The country’s new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has pledged to help free all “political prisoners.”
The retired general claimed that Sarkisian’s representatives approached him during the massive anti-government demonstrations launched by Pashinian in April. He said they asked him to call for an end to the protests and promised that he would be freed in return. He said he rejected the offer.
Babayan also said that he has no plans to return to Karabakh. He warned against attempts to “destabilize” the situation there.
The authorities in Stepanakert have faced street protests and even some calls for their resignation in recent weeks.