Just days after starting his corruption trial, a court in Yerevan has allowed former President Serzh Sarkisian to visit Brussels and meet with prominent European politicians, including Donald Tusk, the European Union’s former top official.
Sarkisian signed a pledge not to leave Armenia when he was charged with embezzlement in December. He rejects the accusations as politically motivated.
Sarkisian and four other men went on trial on February 25. The trial was adjourned until March 26 shortly after its start.
A lawyer for Sarkisian, Amram Makinian, said on Friday that after the first hearing in the case he and the ex-president’s office requested in writing court permission for Sarkisian’s “working visit” to Brussels “planned in advance.” The presiding judge, Vahe Misakian, granted the request, Makinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
According to Sarkisian’s spokeswoman, Meri Harutiunian, the ex-president was allowed to be absent from the country from March 4-7.
The Office of the Prosecutor-General declined to comment on the judge’s decision. It said only that the issue should have been discussed during the court hearing.
Sarkisian’s visit began on Thursday with a meeting with Tusk, the former European Council president who was recently appointed as head of the European People’s Party (EPP). Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) is a member of the grouping of Europe’s leading center-right parties.
According to Armen Ashotian, the HHK’s deputy chairman, Sarkisian briefed Tusk on “recent political developments in Armenia” and spoke about “the dangers of populism for democracy.” The two men also discussed “regional issues and challenges,” Ashotian, who is accompanying the ex-president on the trip, wrote on Facebook.
Later on Thursday, Sarkisian had a dinner meeting with two members of the European Parliament. One of them, Traian Basescu, served as president of Romania from 2004-2014.
While in the Belgian capital, Sarkisian also visited the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, an EPP think-tank, and met with its president, Slovakia’s former Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.
Sarkisian, 65, ruled Armenia from 2008-2018. He resigned amid mass protests sparked by his attempt to extend his decade-long rule. The protests, known as “the Velvet Revolution,” were also fuelled by popular disaffection with widespread government corruption.
Sarkisian criticized the current Armenian government when he spoke at an EPP congress in Croatia in November. He accused Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration jeopardizing democracy and stifling dissent in the country.
The ex-president was indicted two weeks later. He stands accused of giving privileged treatment in 2013 to a longtime friend and businessman which cost the state 489 million drams (just over $1 million) in losses.
Sarkisian and his party accuse the authorities of persecuting him for political reasons. Law-enforcement authorities and Pashinian’s political allies strongly deny this.