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Sentence Imminent In Trial Of Radical Armenian Oppositionist

Protesters clash with police on July 20, 2016, near a police station that was seized by armed men a few days earlier.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, the Armenian authorities claim to have identified and thwarted no fewer than four conspiracies by armed militant groups to overthrow the country's leadership. Two of those groups are currently standing trial, and in both instances the prosecution's case against the accused is perceived as less than convincing.

This perception serves to substantiate the widely held belief that, in the words of the opposition Zharangutiun party, the Armenian leadership is engaged in "isolating, bullying or morally degrading by means of fabricated accusations politicians, freedom fighters, and [other] persons respected and trusted by the public.”

One of the two groups involved is the so-called Armenian Shield Regiment, whose members are accused of amassing weaponry with the intention of seizing government buildings and assassinating President Serzh Sarkisian.

ALSO READ: Trials Of Armenian 'Armed Groups' Reflect Leadership’s Fear Of Destabilization

The other comprises Zhirayr Sefilian, leader of the radical opposition movement 100 Years Without The Regime, and six other men accused of forming an illegal armed group with the aim of instigating mass unrest and seizing government facilities, charges they deny. In February the prosecution demanded an 11-year sentence for Sefilian and prison terms ranging from two to 4 1/2 years for his six co-defendants, one of whom denies even knowing Sefilian.

The charges against Sefilian are partly the result of his radical views. He has repeatedly criticized the current Armenian leadership and called for its replacement. But lawyers for the accused say the prosecution has not produced sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges against him or his co-defendants. The trial has been overshadowed by, and formally linked to, events that took place weeks after Sefilian's arrest in June 2016 -- namely, the seizure and occupation by an armed group with links to Sefilian of a police station in Yerevan, in the course of which three police officers were killed.

Zhirayr Sefilian in a Yerevan courtroom in June 2017
Zhirayr Sefilian in a Yerevan courtroom in June 2017

Sefilian, 50, is a Lebanese-born Armenian who participated in the 1992-94 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and was awarded one of Armenia's most prestigious military medals. He was first arrested in 2007 on a charge, which he rejected as politically motivated, of illegal possession of arms, and was jailed for 18 months.

In 2014, he established the radical opposition group Founding Parliament that launched a campaign for President Sarkisian's resignation timed to coincide with the April 2015 ceremony to mark the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Sefilian then cofounded, together with former presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian, the New Armenian Public Salvation Front that in late 2015 staged several poorly attended protests against the planned constitutional amendments that transformed Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. He was summoned for questioning in November 2015, and again in January 2016, and warned that he risked being jailed if he did not give up his political activity.

Sefilian was arrested again in June 2016, just weeks after he had criticized Sarkisian for ruling out any attempt to recapture a small part of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh district regained by Azerbaijan in an offensive in April. Sefilian had also announced plans to create a National Resistance Committee with the stated aim of ridding Armenia of what he termed "a treacherous government” and of "taking over as soon as possible, with the help of the people and the army, the function of governing the country.”

Sefilian's arrest served as the catalyst for the most serious challenge to political stability in recent years. On July 17, 2016, a group of 31 gunmen, most of them affiliated with Founding Parliament, stormed a police station in Yerevan's Erebuni district, killing one police officer, fatally injuring a second, and taking five more hostage to demand Sefilian's release and Sarkisian's resignation.

Sefilian's offer to try to mediate a peaceful solution to the standoff went unheeded. On July 30, a third policeman was killed in an exchange of fire. The gunmen finally surrendered the following day.

Initially, Sefilian was charged only with illegal possession of weapons and planning to stage mass unrest. Then a further charge was brought against him in November 2016 of forming one year earlier a number of illegal armed groups with a total strength of 200 to 300 men with the intention of seizing a TV tower and other government facilities in Yerevan in December 2015 and May 2016. According to the prosecution, that plot was foiled when police discovered and confiscated the arms Sefilian had purportedly amassed for that purpose. The case against Sefilian was combined with that against the Sasna Tsrer gunmen.

The trial of Sefilian and his six co-defendants opened in Yerevan in late May 2017. The defendants and their lawyers sparred repeatedly with the presiding judge over procedural issues. Only one -- Hovannes Petrosian -- testified against Sefilian, who he said ordered him to reconnoiter the TV tower. All seven men pleaded not guilty. One of them, Nerses Poghosian, twice went on hunger strike, protesting that he did not know Sefilian personally and was never affiliated with Founding Parliament.

Sefilian's lawyer Tigran Hayrapetian pointed out that the 200 to 300 members of the armed groups Sefilian has been accused of setting up have not been identified and apprehended, and that the prosecution failed to explain why, given that those groups had allegedly been established in late 2015, Sefilian had still not implemented his plans to seize government facilities before his arrest in June 2016.

Questions also arose with regard to the weapons said to have been acquired: two Kalashnikov rifles plus 120 bullets, which would appear to be woefully inadequate for the alleged purpose. An eighth man, Artur Movsisian, who like Poghosian denied having ever met Sefilian, went on trial in the town of Hrazdan in August 2017 on a charge of storing some of those weapons – even though he was living in Russia at the time. He was found guilty and jailed for three years, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 4.

In December, following repeated verbal clashes with the presiding judge, for which he was removed from the courtroom several times for contempt of court, Sefilian denounced the trial as stage-managed on orders from the country's leadership and refused to testify. He then boycotted the next hearing, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on January 12.

Andreas Ghukasian
Andreas Ghukasian

As for the Sasna Tsrer fighters who actually occupied the Yerevan police precinct, they were divided into three groups that are currently being tried separately, as is opposition politician Andreas Ghukasian. Ghukasian, 47, went on hunger strike in early 2013 in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to persuade Armenia's Central Election Commission to bar Sarkisian from the February ballot in which he sought reelection on the grounds that his Republican Party of Armenia is "abusing its position in the state and cannot be an honest rival to other participants of the elections," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 21, 2013.

Ghukasian was arrested in late July 2016, together with three prominent Zharangutiun members, and charged with inciting to "mass disturbances” the more than 1,000 people who congregated close to the besieged police station in a mark of support for the Sasna Tsrer gunmen's demands. Ghukasian has consistently rejected that charge as politically motivated. In November 2017, a witness at his trial claimed that Ghukasian urged protesters to throw stones at police, and that he intended to join Sasna Tsrer. Ghukasian challenged the prosecution to prove video evidence substantiating the former allegation, which it has not done to date.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.