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Armenian Opposition Leader Freed Despite Coup Charges


Armenia -- Former National Security Service Director Artur Vanetsian addresses opposition protesters in Yerevan, November 11, 2020.

Artur Vanetsian, a former National Security Service (NSS) director leading an opposition party, was released from custody late on Sunday despite being charged with plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and overthrow Armenia’s government.

The NSS arrested Vanetsian and three other opposition members on Saturday. It formally brought the same coup and murder charges against three of the suspects on Sunday just hours after Yerevan courts opened hearings on appeals against their preliminary detention filed by their lawyers. The latter rejected the accusation as politically motivated.

One of the court judges agreed to declare Vanetsian’s detention unjustified and order his release. Another judge is expected to rule on Monday on the former NSS chief’s pre-trial arrest sought by investigators.

Vanetsian’s Hayrenik (Fatherland) party is one of 17 Armenian opposition groups that launched on November 10 street protests against the terms of a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement that stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Nagorno-Karabakh. They accuse Pashinian of capitulating to Azerbaijan and demand his resignation. The prime minister has dismissed the accusations.

The Armenian authorities say that the opposition protests are illegal, citing martial law declared by them following the outbreak of the war on September 27. The opposition forces have pledged to continue their demonstrations in Yerevan, however.

One of the arrested and indicted suspects, Ashot Minasian, is the commander of a volunteer militia from the southeastern town of Sisian that took part in the six-week war. The NSS claimed on Saturday to have found large quantities of weapons in a property belonging to him.

On Sunday the security service publicized what it described as audio of Minasian’s wiretapped phone conversations with two other suspects, Vahram Baghdasarian and Ashot Avagian, during which they blamed Pashinian for the unsuccessful war and seemingly discussed ways of assassinating him and seizing power.

Baghdasarian is a senior member of former President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party while Avagian is affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).

One of Vanetsian’s lawyers, Lusine Sahakian, insisted that the recordings do not prove her client’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy. Speaking before his release, Sahakian said the NSS has failed to substantiate its accusations against Vanetsian with any other evidence.

Vanetsian, 40, was appointed as head of the NSS immediately after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Pashinian to power. He resigned in September 2019 after falling out with Pashinian. He has since repeatedly accused Pashinian of incompetence and misrule, prompting angry responses from the premier and his political allies.

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