Opposition and civil activists in Armenia say they don’t know a man who asked for political asylum in Azerbaijan last week, claiming to be an Armenian civic activist persecuted in his home country.
Vahan Martirosian, a 32-year-old citizen of Armenia, introduced himself as leader of the Intranational Liberation Movement and described himself as an oppressed activist at a press conference in Azerbaijan on September 18.
He left Armenia and entered Azerbaijan through Georgia despite being under investigation by police for theft and under a confinement order to stay in Armenia.
Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, opposition leaders in Armenia said that they never met Martirosian.
“Being involved in different civic initiatives myself, I have not physically seen him in any movement," said Maxim Sargsian, a member of the No To Plunder group that led recent protests against electricity price hikes. "Perhaps he was there and I didn’t see him, but I don’t remember a single case when I would see his face.”
Opposition Prosperous Armenia Party leader Naira Zohrabian, who was also involved in antigovernment rallies several months ago, says she first saw Martirosian’s face in media reports about his being beaten.
“But before that, I did not ever know either a political figure or civic activist with that name and surname," said Zohrabian, who is also a member of the Armenian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
"Here some vigilance is needed," she said. "We should be a little more attentive to who is speaking today on behalf of civil society, what slogans, ideas, and views they promote, and what motivation they have so that we avoid situations like this.”
Zohrabian said she is certain that the Azerbaijani delegation will mention the young Armenian and his controversial Baku press conference at a PACE plenary session opening on September 28.
The Armenian delegation is prepared to respond to this "primitive propaganda by Azerbaijan," she said.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear how Martirosian was able to leave Armenia while he was under criminal investigation.
On September 22, Armenian police admitted that he crossed the Armenian-Georgian border at the Bagratashen checkpoint soon after midnight on September 4.
Two days before that, police say they had allowed Martirosian to go free, despite suspicion of theft, with a written stipulation that he should not leave the country. It is unclear how he managed to cross the border and leave Armenia without meeting with obstacles prompted by the criminal investigation.
Ruzanna Marguni, the woman from whose apartment Martirosian allegedly stole $3,800, insists that she had warned investigators about Martirosian’s intention to leave the country.
“He told me once that he would even go to Azerbaijan. I was surprised. But then he said he was joking,” said Marguni, a translator and research worker.
Marguni opened her home to Martirosian and his wife, housing them for five days before they fled.
“They had an opportunity to look [for money] everywhere in the apartment. I don’t have any drawers or cases that are locked," she said. "I immediately called the police and they came very quickly, but did not act very quickly. They were questioning me about the matter as if I were the one who did it."
According to Marguni, several days after she alerted the police, Martirosian’s wife came to her apartment and confirmed that her husband had taken the money. The wife said she would return it later, and asked Marguni to withdraw the complaint so that her husband could leave the country.
However, Marguni said she remained unconvinced. She says that before this incident she had a good opinion about Vahan Martirosian based on her contacts with him online and thought that he was being persecuted for his opposition activities.
“I think that he a skillful fraudster, a good actor," she said. "He wanted to look like a hero, create an image of himself as a fighter. Now, he is playing an antihero there."