YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) partly publicized on Wednesday what it described as evidence of a coup d’etat that was allegedly planned by members of an obscure militant group arrested late last year.
A senior NSS official leading the high-profile investigation said the apparently well-armed group plotted to seize the presidential palace and other key government buildings in Yerevan and even considered blowing up President Serzh Sarkisian’s aircraft.
“We are talking about the possibility of taking such an action during presidential plane’s departure [to Switzerland] on December 1 for a meeting with the president of Azerbaijan,” said the official, Mikael Hambardzumian. “They discussed a concrete place where that could be carried out: the area adjacent to the Zvartnots airport [just outside Yerevan.]”
“We have inspected that site and I can say that we believe it was physically possible to do that because during takeoff and landing the plane flies at a fairly low altitude and is reachable,” Hambardzumian told a news conference. “
“But I must stress that Artur Vartanian did not make a decision on that. It was only being discussed,” he added, referring to the alleged ringleader.
Vartanian and a dozen other individuals were detained in November in a dawn raid on a Yerevan house conducted by the NSS and the Armenian police. The security forces found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.
The NSS arrested more than 20 other persons, among them two veteran politicians, in the following weeks. It said later in November that Vartanian’s group planned to kill senior Armenian officials and carry out other terrorist attacks.
Vartanian reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia last April. In 2015, the 34-year-old announced the establishment of a nationalist group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment). A video posted on Facebook showed a uniform-clad Vartanian reading out a statement in front of nine other armed men who also wore army fatigues. He said the Armenian Shield will put up “armed resistance to terrorists” threatening Armenians in Syria and other parts of the world.
The NSS’s Hambardzumian said the core members of the group underwent secret military training in Vartanian’s paternal village in central Armenia in August-September 2015. He released a photograph, purportedly taken in a village house, of 10 masked and armed men standing under an Armenian Shield banner.
According to Hambardzumian, the group subsequently drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan. He said NSS investigators have found a pre-recorded video of a televised address which Vartanian planned to deliver after the coup. The investigators will not make the videotaped message public for now, he added.
The NSS publicized instead an English-language statement which the group allegedly planned to send to foreign diplomatic missions in Armenia. The document dated “November xx 2015” invited their representatives to an “information meeting” with members of a “transition government” formed by a “Free Armenia Committee.”
Hambardzumian said that as part of the coup plot Vartanian and his associates also monitored the work of Sarkisian’s personal security service and secretly filmed the president when he attended the inauguration on September 24 of a newly built Armenian Catholic church in Gyumri.
“While attending the ceremony, Artur Vartanian wore a church choir uniform in order to avoid being spotted,” claimed the top investigator.
Incidentally, a Gyumri-based Catholic priest, Father Anton Totonjian, and a journalist with the local Radio Mariam radio station belonging to the congregation were among those arrested in November. They both deny aiding the alleged coup plotters. The journalist, Lilit Torosian, was released from pre-trial custody pending investigation in January.
Most of the other suspects have also denied the accusations levelled against them. Vartanian admitted through a lawyer in December that he and his associates possessed the firearms and explosives confiscated by the NSS. But the lawyer insisted that those weapons were “not directed against Armenia and its citizens.”
In Hambardzumian’s words, 33 individuals have been charged in the probe and 25 of them remain in pre-trial detention.
The NSS official further claimed that the investigators have identified the person who “financed” the alleged conspiracy. “We know the financer and we have charged him as part of the criminal case,” he said, refusing to name that person. “The origin of the money is also clear to us. The group received about $65,000.”
“The suspect resides and works in the Republic of Armenia. I can’t tell you more at this point,” added Hambardzumian.