The supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, has been criticized by Armenia’s political leadership after calling for former President Robert Kocharian’s release from prison.
In written comments to News.am publicized late on Tuesday, Garegin said that relevant authorities should free Kocharian in order to avoid “further complications of his health condition” during the coronavirus pandemic. He cited “doctors’ professional opinions regarding the president’s health.”
Garegin also argued that countries around the world are releasing criminal suspects and convicts “not posing a threat to the society” these days to prevent them from being infected with coronavirus.
Kocharian, who is standing trial on corruption and coup charges strongly denied by him, was taken back to a prison in central Yerevan on April 3 after spending more than three weeks in hospital. His lawyers claimed that he will risk contracting the virus if not set free.
“The Armenian government has no comment on His Holiness’s wishes and hopes,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Gevorgian noted in that context the fact that Garegin’s spokesman, Rev. Vahram Melikian, had formally vouched for Samvel Mayraperian, a businessman indicted as part of the corruption case against Kocharian.
Law-enforcement authorities allowed Mayrapetian in January 2019 undergo treatment in Germany for a life-threatening form of pancreatitis. Melikian and a prominent Armenian academic guaranteed in writing that he will return to Armenia once his treatment in a German clinic is complete. Investigators said in early March that the tycoon is now refusing to present himself before them on “unsubstantiated” grounds.
Gevorgian said that the government expects the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church to “reassess” the guarantee signed by Garegin’s spokesman.
A close associate of Pashinian, deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonian, went farther on Wednesday, accusing the Catholicos of trying to exert pressure on Armenian courts. “For decades he did not intervene in the imprisonment of various people,” Simonian said, referring to political opponents of Armenia’s former governments.
Other government loyalists took to social media to condemn Garegin in even stronger terms. Gevorg Gorgisian, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Bright Armenia Party, denounced the verbal attacks.
“The Catholicos can make any statement on any believer,” Gorgisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Why has he not made [such statements] in the past and why is he making them now? These are legitimate questions that can be put to the Catholicos. But that must be done with utmost respect.”
The Mother See defended Garegin’s stance, saying that it is in tune with the church’s “humanist mission and values. “Therefore, it is not appropriate to politicize the position of His Holiness and engage in fruitless debates,” it said in a statement issued later on Wednesday.
Kocharian, 65, as well as his former chief of staff and two retired army generals went on trial last year on charges mostly stemming from the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan. The ex-president, who ruled Armenia from 1998-2008, rejects the accusations as politically motivated.
The judge presiding over the high-profile trial, Anna Danibekian, has repeatedly refused to free Kocharian pending a verdict in the case. Prosecutors have also opposed his release.
Danibekian was due to consider a written appeal for Kocharian release, signed by three former Armenian prime ministers, during a court hearing scheduled for March 17. The hearing was postponed, ostensibly because of her illness, leading defense lawyers to accuse the authorities of foul play. The trial is due to resume later this month.