The Armenian parliament voted on Tuesday to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest and prosecute the leader of its largest opposition group, Gagik Tsarukian, on charges rejected by him as politically motivated.
Addressing the parliament controlled by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc, Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian alleged that Tsarukian “created and led an organized group” that bought more than 17,000 votes for his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) during parliamentary elections held in April 2017. Davtian said the NSS has collected documents and testimony showing that the vote bribes were handed out to residents of the Gegharkunik province.
Tsarukian and other BHK lawmakers vehemently denied the accusations when they spoke on the parliament floor before the first vote. They said that law-enforcement authorities have not produced any evidence of his involvement in the alleged vote buying.
They again claimed that Pashinian ordered the criminal proceedings in response to Tsarukian’s demands for the entire Armenian government’s resignation voiced on June 5.
Tsarukian stood by his claims that the government has failed to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country and tackle severe socioeconomic consequences of the deadly epidemic.
“The end of your revolution has come,” Tsarukian declared, referring to the 2018 protest movement that brought Pashinian to power.
“Eighty or ninety percent of the people believed in you and the revolution,” he said. “But today even 5 percent do not believe.”
The BHK leader also said that he is undaunted by the prospect of his imprisonment and will “go to the end” in challenging the authorities. He claimed that with their “fabricated” criminal case they are only “making a hero” out of him.
“This is temporary, [it will last for] only one or two months, not longer,” he added in his angry speech. “You must understand this before it’s too late. You are standing on the brink of an abyss.”
“Tsarukian and our party represent a considerable part of the people,” said Arman Abovian, a senior BHK deputy. “You are at war with the people.”
Immediately after finishing his speech and leaving the parliament building, Tsarukian was surrounded by NSS officers and taken to the NSS headquarters for further questioning. BHK representatives said that the security service illegally detained him before securing the parliament’s consent. Parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan insisted, however, that Tsarukian was not detained.
The Bright Armenia Party (LHK), the other opposition force represented in the parliament, also said that the accusations of vote buying are politically motivated. Its leader, Edmon Marukian, dismissed as hypocritical Pashinian allies’ harsh criticism of Tsarukian voiced since June 5.
Marukian argued that Pashinian repeatedly cut political deals with Tsarukian following the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.” “You are not honest and sincere,” he said, referring to the ruling bloc.
In his concluding remarks, Davtian insisted that the criminal case against the opposition leader and wealthy businessman is a “purely legal process.” The chief prosecutor said the NSS opened the case in February, more than three months before Tsarukian lambasted the government in unusually strong terms.
Leaders of the parliament’s pro-government majority also denied any political motives behind the crackdown. Mirzoyan said the opposition must not “politicize the legal process.”
“Everyone is equal before the law regardless of whether or not they lead a political party,” said the speaker close to Pashinian.
Both parliamentary opposition forces decided to boycott the ensuing separate votes on lifting Tsarukian’s immunity from prosecution and allowing his arrest. “We will not participate in this farce,” said Marukian.
As a result, only 87 of the 132 deputies of the National Assembly voted in the secret ballot. They all backed the prosecutor’s demands.
Pashinian’s My Step controls 88 parliament seats. Two of its deputies were absent from Tuesday’s session, suggesting that Tsarukian’s prosecution was unanimously backed by the 86 other pro-government lawmakers.
The BHK holds 26 seats, having finished second in the last general elections held in December 2018.
As the parliament began debating the matter in the morning the NSS announced that it launched on Monday a separate investigation into other instances of alleged vote buying by the BHK.
In a statement, the security service said that a senior BHK figure, Naira Zohrabian, has repeatedly admitted in her private conversations that Tsarukian’s party had paid Armenians to vote for it in various elections. The statement contained a relevant quote attributed to Zohrabian. It did not specify whether the NSS eavesdropped on the opposition politician’s conversations.
Zohrabian angrily denied these allegations. She suggested that her phones were illegally tapped by the NSS.