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

Zhirayr Sefilian greets supporters during his trial in Yerevan in June 2017.
Zhirayr Sefilian greets supporters during his trial in Yerevan in June 2017.

Armenia’s National Security Service announced in early December that an arrest warrant was issued for a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent who allegedly set up a radical group named Fighters For Justice and plotted terrorist attacks against senior Armenian officials.

If those allegations prove true, Fighters For Justice would be the fourth group in two years to be implicated in an alleged attempt to undermine or overthrow Armenia's ruling regime.

Dozens of people affiliated with three separate groups are currently on trial on such charges.

That trend suggests either that latent discontent with the country’s leadership has reached a dangerously high level or that the Armenian authorities harbor a chronic mistrust of any person, informal organization, or group perceived capable of mobilizing broad popular support and thus posing a threat to political stability -- even though most political analysts consider such fears misplaced and unfounded in light of widespread public apathy and resignation.

ALSO READ: Sentence Imminent in Trial of Radical Armenian Oppositionist

One prominent case involves Lebanese-born Zhirayr Sefilian, who heads the radical political formations 100 Years Without The Regime and Founding Parliament.

Sefilian was arrested in June 2016 and charged with establishing an illegal armed formation, illegal possession of weapons, and plotting to instigate mass unrest and seize government facilities. The case against him was subsequently merged with that against a separate armed group calling itself Sasna Tsrer (Daredevils Of Sassoun). It stormed a Yerevan police station in July 2016 to demand Sefilian’s release and President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation. Three police officers were killed before the gunmen surrendered two weeks later.

The second case centers on the Armenian Shield Regiment group, which was apprehended on suspicion of amassing weaponry with the intention of carrying out political assassinations and other terrorist acts.

Eleven members of that group, including its leader, Artur Vartanian, were arrested in November 2015. More suspects, including former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and an elderly Armenian Catholic priest, were arrested in the following weeks, bringing the total in custody to 33.

In March 2016, senior National Security Service official Mikael Hambartsumian divulged details of the investigation, which he said had established that the group was plotting to seize the presidential palace and other government buildings. He said group members had also discussed the possibility of shooting down Sarkisian’s plane, although Vartanian had not made a decision on whether to do so.

Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, admitted that its members had acquired the weapons (which included 10 automatic rifles, pistols, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 60 hand grenades, explosives and explosive devices, and several types of ammunition, together with communications equipment) confiscated during a search of the house they had rented in Yerevan, but categorically denied they had any intention of seizing government buildings and ousting Sarkisian, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported on November 21, 2016.

But Baghdasarian declined to clarify for what purpose Vartanian had stockpiled the weapons and explosives.

Four members of the group were sentenced in September on charges of illegally acquiring weapons on Vartanian’s orders. Twenty more -- including Vartanian and Shirkhanian -- were formally charged with membership in a criminal group, illegal possession of weapons, and plotting to seize power.

They went on trial in early December 2016, at which point the priest, Father Anton Totonjian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that “the entire case is fabricated.”

Totonjian later admitted in court to having given Vartanian $60,000 but denied the money was meant to finance the alleged coup, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported.

Shirkhanian, 70, who is in failing health, rejected as untrue and politically motivated the claim that he suggested to Vartanian that the group should assassinate the president rather than simply seize government buildings, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported on July 24, 2016.

Given that Armenia was ranked in 2014 by a German think tank as the third-most militarized country in the world (after Israel and Singapore), the fact that both Sasna Tsrer and Vartanian’s group had weaponry at their disposal is hardly surprising. But possession of arms, although itself a criminal offense, does not necessarily imply the intention to resort to force and stage a coup, even if, as in the case of Sefilian, the accused had publicly advocated bringing about regime change.

However incautious or inflammatory their rhetoric, it is incumbent on the prosecution to provide convincing evidence that the accused intended to move from words to deeds. But in the cases of both Sefilian and the Armenian Shield Regiment, the prosecution’s case appears to have been based on incomplete or dubious evidence. That perception, together with numerous alleged procedural violations formally protested by defense lawyers, in turn fuels suspicions that the objective in bringing at least some of the accused to trial may have been to intimidate or silence outspoken critics of the ruling regime or people believed capable of mobilizing opposition to it.

The latter category also includes Samvel Babayan, the charismatic former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, who was affiliated with an opposition grouping established by three former government ministers in the run-up to the Armenian parliamentary election last year. Babayan was arrested in March 2017 and accused of money laundering and acquiring through intermediaries -- at a price of $50,000 -- an Igla ground-to-air missile.

The prosecution never specified for what purpose Babayan wanted the missile, and one of his associates, Sanasar Gabrielian, admitted that it was he who sought to buy it from Robert Aghvanian, an Armenian living in Georgia, with the intention of making it available to the Nagorno-Karabakh army.

But Aghvanian sold the weapon to another man who did not implicate Babayan in the deal.The court nonetheless jailed Babayan in November 2017 for six years.

In a December 2017 statement cited verbatim by the news portal Caucasian Knot, seven Armenian human rights organizations alleged that “the persecution of people for political reasons, judicial investigations with a predetermined verdict, a wave of pressure and defamation at the behest of the authorities, have become the norm in Armenia.”

That tactic of arresting groups of people whose political affiliations were deemed to pose a threat to the regime dates back to the early years of Armenia’s post-Soviet history.

In December 1994, President Levon Ter-Petrossian ordered the arrest of 32 members of the then-opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun for their alleged links to a clandestine terror organization code-named Dro, the existence of which was never definitively demonstrated. Some were released in the summer of 1995; others who were tried and sentenced were pardoned shortly after Ter-Petrossian’s resignation in February 1998 by his successor, Robert Kocharian.

The Armenian authorities’ continued acute sensitivity to the threat of political destabilization is nonetheless understandable in light of two factors.

The first is the October 1999 attack by armed gunmen on the Armenian parliament that left the prime minister, the parliament speaker, and six others dead. At their trial, which began two years later, the self-styled leader of the five gunmen said he intended to seize the parliament building and overthrow the government.

The second is the state of undeclared war with Azerbaijan over the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region, which following a referendum in 1991 proclaimed itself a republic and declared independence from Azerbaijan, of which under international law it is a constituent part.

Although that state of “not peace, but not war” has continued since a 1994 cease-fire agreement, the underlying, persistent fear of renewed hostilities was reinforced by the political impact of the fighting in April 2016 along the 230-kilometer Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces dug in east of the disputed territory. Some 70-80 Armenian servicemen died during the fighting, in which Azerbaijan succeeded in retaking a very small part of the territory over which it had lost control in the early 1990s.

The Armenian losses were in part the consequence of conscripts being issued insufficient equipment and being hampered by shortages of ammunition and weapons.

Those failures reinforced the perception that official corruption, which the authorities have for years downplayed and sworn to curtail, has become entrenched and endemic to the point that it now poses a direct threat to national security.

That military vulnerability has, in turn, been exacerbated, first by Russia’s perceived flouting of Armenian strategic interests in pursuit of a rapprochement with Baku, and second, by the ongoing uncertainty over how the configuration of power within the ruling elite will change in April 2018 following the end of Sarkisian’s second presidential term and the transition to a parliamentary republic in which the prime minister becomes the country’s most powerful political figure.

Despite those legitimate concerns, the authorities’ reliance on countering perceived threats to political stability with poorly substantiated criminal charges seen as politically motivated is likely, in the long-term, to compound long-standing public frustration at the seeming impossibility of bringing about political change by means of free and fair elections.

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.


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