YEREVAN -- A court in Armenia has sentenced opposition politician Zhirayr Sefilian to 10 1/2 years in prison in a high-profile case.
In a March 20 ruling, the Shengavit court in Yerevan convicted Sefilian, the leader of the radical opposition movement Founding Parliament, of planning mass disorder -- including armed resistance to police, violence, the destruction of property, and illegally obtaining firearms and ammunition -- with the aim of seizing strategic buildings in the capital.
Sefilian and six of his supporters were arrested on June 20, 2016, after authorities accused them of plotting to seize a television tower and several government building in Yerevan.
The six supporters were also found guilty and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five 1/2 years.
The shortest sentence of the six was handed out to Hovannes Petrosian, the only defendant who testified against Sefilian. Petrosian said that Sefilian had told him to prepare for the seizure of a television tower in Yerevan.
The prosecutors said that Sefilian formed an armed group to attack a television tower and several other “strategic” facilities, including a military base just outside the capital, with the aim of forcing the Armenian authorities to take “certain actions.”
They also said that Sefilian planned to organize “mass disturbances” in Yerevan during the April 2015 commemorations of the centenary of the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, which Armenia and some other countries consider genocide.
Sefilian and all other defendants with the exception of Petrosian have strongly denied the accusations as politically motivated.
In his last statement at the trial, Sefilian called the criminal case against him and the other men a “fairy tale.” He also accused the judge presiding over the trial, Tatevik Grigorian, of resorting to “illegal actions” throughout the trial.
Sefilian has frequently and bitterly argued with Grigorian during court hearings in the case.
The lawyers, backed by some human rights activists, have decried what they call serious violations of due process. They have insisted that the prosecution has failed to substantiate the accusations.
Weeks after the arrest of Sefilian and the other six, more than 30 members of the Sasna Tsrer armed group, dubbed by some the Daredevils of Sassoun, seized a police station in Yerevan's Erebuni district and held it for more than two weeks.
They demanded Sefilian's release and resignation of then-President Serzh Sarkisian.
One police officer was killed and another fatally wounded in the assault, which was followed by large-scale protests by the armed group’s supporters and other Armenians.
Violence erupted at some of the protests and a second police officer was killed.
In a statement in 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government had failed to ensure full accountability for violence conducted by police against the "largely peaceful" protesters and journalists in July 2016.
HRW said that at some of the protests, authorities "used excessive force, assaulting many demonstrators as well as journalists reporting on the events,” its report said.
“Authorities arbitrarily detained many protest leaders and hundreds of participants, pressing unjustified criminal charges against some," it said.
Lebanese-born Sefilian, 51, is a veteran of the 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
He has been a vocal critic of both the current and previous Armenian governments. In 2006, he was arrested shortly after setting up an antigovernment union of fellow war veterans. The authorities claimed that they planned to mount an armed uprising against then-President Robert Kocharian.
Sefilian was cleared of the coup charge during his subsequent trial. Still, he spent 18 months in prison on charges of illegal arms possession.
Sefilian was again detained along with his four associates in 2015, ahead of a series of antigovernment rallies planned by them in Yerevan. They were charged with plotting street violence but were set free a month later.