A veteran Armenian politician accused of plotting to seize power together with members of a clandestine militant group was released from custody on Monday pending the outcome of their ongoing trial.
Vahan Shirkhanian, a former deputy defense minister, is one of the 20 individuals who went on trial on coup charges in December 2015. Most of them were detained in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan. Armenian security forces found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.
Those arrested in that raid were apparently led by Artur Vartanian, a 36-year-old obscure man who reportedly lived in Spain until his return to Armenia in April 2015.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that the core members of Vartanian’s group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment) underwent secret military training in an Armenian village in August-September 2015. It says that Vartanian and his associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan.
According to the prosecution, Shirkhanian agreed to participate in the alleged plot and suggested in 2015 that the armed group assassinate then President Serzh Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure of the key state buildings. Shirkhanian denies the accusations as politically motivated,
A Yerevan judge presiding over the high-profile trial on Monday agreed to free him for now after two members of the Armenian parliament guaranteed in writing that the 71-year-old will not attempt to escape justice. Both lawmakers are affiliated with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s party.
As he walked free in the courtroom Shirkhanian said his provisional release was made possible by the recent change of Armenia’s government. “I congratulate all of you on the end of the rule of evil in Armenia,” he told reporters.
The case against Shirkhanian is based in large measure on his conversation with Vartanian which took place in his home and was secretly recorded. The trial prosecutors publicized the transcript of that conversation during a court hearing in December 2017.
According to that text, the two men seemed to discuss ways of achieving a violent overthrow of the government. In particular, Shirkhanian was quoted as saying that then Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian “hates” Sarkisian’s and the presidential entourage and “will do what we say” immediately after the president is eliminated. In that context, he spoke of a possibility of the presidential plane “taking off and falling down.”
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service earlier in 2017, Shirkhanian’s lawyer, Hayk Alumian, said the wiretap is “illegal” and its content is “equivocal and can be interpreted in different ways.”