A leader of a radical Armenian party demanded on Monday the immediate release of two of its members accused of murdering three police officers during a 2016 attack on a police station in Yerevan.
Zhirayr Sefilian said the Sasna Tsrer party will “force” the authorities to free the two men if its demand is rejected.
The suspects, Armen Bilian and Smbat Barseghian, were part of a 31-member armed group that seized the police base in July 2016 to demand than President Serzh Sarkisian free Sefilian and step down. Sefilian had been arrested a month before the attack.
The gunmen laid down their weapons after a two-week standoff with security forces which left the three policemen dead. All them except Bilian and Barseghian were set free pending the outcome of their ongoing trials shortly after Sarkisian was toppled in last spring’s “velvet revolution.”
The two arrested men stand accused of killing the police Colonel Artur Vanoyan and Warrant Officers Gagik Mkrtchian and Yuri Tepanosian. They deny the accusations.
In a Facebook post, Sefilian condemned the authorities for keeping the “rebels” behind bars. “Enough is enough. If Armen Bilian and Smbat Barseghian are not freed, the more dignified and conscious segment of our people will force the recognition of the right to rebel and the release of the rebels,” warned the Lebanese-born nationalist activist.
Sefilian, who too was released from jail after the peaceful regime change, did not specify how his party would do that.
Varuzhan Avetisian, another Sasna Tsrer leader who led the attack on the police station, also condemned Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government. “Such an approach puts Pashinian’s government and Serzh Sarkisian’s criminal regime on the same subconscious plane,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “That is why such an approach is unacceptable.”
Avetisian seemingly ruled out an armed struggle against the current government. “We are certainly not talking about that. We are talking about citizens’ protests and other actions taken within the bounds of the law,” he said.
The stark warnings came three days after Justice Minister Artak Zeynalian confirmed that Avetisian and 20 other members of the armed group do not qualify for a general amnesty declared by the authorities in November.
Under an amnesty bill passed by the Armenian parliament, the key participants of the deadly attack can be pardoned only with the consent of their former hostages, including Valeri Osipian, the national police chief. Osipian formally objected to the amnesty earlier this month.
In his statement, Sefilian denounced the amnesty bill as “ludicrous” and likened it to a “trap.”
Reacting to the statement, the Armenian Justice Ministry said neither it nor any other government body is legally allowed to comment on ongoing trials or criminal investigations. There was no immediate reaction from Pashinian.
The prime minister lambasted the Sasna Tsrer party in the run-up to the December 2018 parliamentary elections. He said its members and supporters will “feel the taste of asphalt” if they attempt to destabilize the political situation in Armenia.
The warning was prompted by Sasna Tsrer leaders’ claims that the new Armenian parliament will have to be dissolved within two years because the country is now in a post-revolutionary “transitional period.” Avetisian stood by those statements a few days after Pashinian’s My Step bloc won the December 8 elections by a landslide.
Sasna Tsrer got only 1.8 percent of the vote and thus failed to win any seats in the new National Assembly.