The presumed leader of a clandestine militant group that had allegedly plotted to overthrow Armenia’s former President Serzh Sarkisian has been released from prison on bail.
A court in Yerevan agreed to grant Artur Vartanian bail on health grounds at the weekend. Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian said the 37-year-old has serious health problems that have been aggravated by his nearly four-year imprisonment.
Vartanian and a dozen other individuals were arrested in November 2015 in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan jointly conducted by the Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS). The law-enforcement bodies found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there. They made more than 20 other arrests in the following weeks.
The NSS said afterwards that Vartanian set up a group called the Armenian Shield Regiment before drawing up with his associates detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament and state television buildings in Yerevan. It said they also explored ways of shooting down President Sarkisian’s plane.
Vartanian admitted acquiring weapons and ammunition for the militant group when he and 19 other persons went on trial in December 2016. He insisted, however, that he never intended to seize power or assassinate Sarkisian.
Most of the other defendants also rejected the coup charges brought against them. They included former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and Father Anton Totonjian, an Armenian Catholic priest based in Gyumri. Shirkhanian had allegedly advocated Sarkisian’s assassination, while Totonjian was charged with financing the conspiracy.
Vartanian was the only defendant remaining under arrest before Saturday’s court order. The other suspects were freed pending the outcome of the trial before and after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that toppled Sarkisian.
Vartanian lived in Spain before returning to Armenia in April 2015 and setting up the Armenian Shield Regiment. According to the NSS, the core members of the group underwent secret military training in Vartanian’s paternal village in August-September 2015. Investigators released in late 2016 a photograph, purportedly taken in a village house, of 10 masked and armed men standing under the group’s banner.