Former President Robert Kocharian did not order security forces to shoot and kill opposition protesters in Yerevan in 2008, Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former top military commander, said on Friday.
Babayan questioned the fairness and legality of Kocharian’s continuing pre-trial detention on charges stemming from a post-election crackdown on the Armenian opposition. He argued that nobody has been charged so far in the deaths of eight protesters and two police servicemen in vicious street clashes that broke out on March 1, 2008.
The violence followed the forcible dispersal of nonstop opposition protests against official results of the February 2008 presidential election which gave victory to Serzh Sarkisian, Kocharian’s longtime ally and preferred successor. Both men are natives and former wartime leaders of Karabakh.
“We need to know who ordered, who carried out those killings and how it all happened,” Babayan told a news conference. “Has anything been solved on that score? No.”
“I am sure that the order was not issued by [Kocharian,]” insisted Babayan. He said that Kocharian was “in the process of handover” of power to Sarkisian and therefore could not have tried to cling to power at any cost.
“The investigating team has officially stated that [Kocharian] has nothing to do with the killings,” he went on. “If he has nothing to do, why are you prosecuting him? For violating the constitutional, they say. I say, ‘OK, bring the case to court so we can see what it’s all about.’”
Kocharian, who completed his second and final presidential term in April 2008, was arrested in December on charges of illegally using Armenian army units against supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in the disputed presidential ballot. He denies the charges as politically motivated.
Babayan, 53, was appointed as the commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army shortly after Kocharian became the unrecognized republic’s leader in 1992. The two men are thought to have maintained a cordial rapport even after Babayan was arrested in 2000 for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of the next Karabakh president, Arkady Ghukasian.
The once powerful general was released from prison in 2004. He challenged Sarkisian after the latter succeeded Kocharian as Armenia’s president.
In March 2017, Babayan was arrested on charges of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering which he strongly denied. A court in Yerevan subsequently sentenced him to six years in prison.
Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the guilty verdict in June 2018, releasing Babayan from prison. The decision came more than a month after Sarkisian was overthrown in a popular uprising led by Nikol Pashinian, the current Armenian prime minister.
Babayan, who now wants to run in Karabakh’s next presidential election due in 2020, on Friday drew parallels between the criminal charges brought against him and Kocharian. “When they arrested me, they said I smuggled a rocket or a nuclear bomb from Georgia,” he said. “It turned out later that I didn’t smuggle anything from anywhere.”