YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Twenty people went on trial in Yerevan on Friday, accused of being part of a clandestine armed group that plotted to seize power in Armenia.
The trial began one year after more than a dozen individuals were detained in a dawn raid on their hideout in Yerevan’s Nork-Marash district conducted by Armenian security forces. They found large quantities of weapons and explosives stashed there.
More than 20 other people were arrested in the following weeks. Some of them were subsequently released pending investigation.
The arrested group was apparently led by Artur Vartanian, a 35-year-old man who reportedly lived abroad until his return to Armenia in April 2015.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) claims that the core members of Vartanian’s group called Hayots Vahan Gund (Armenian Shield Regiment) underwent secret military training in a village in central Armenia in August-September 2015. It says that Vartanian and his associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state television buildings in Yerevan.
Vartanian denied the coup charges when he briefly spoke to reporters in the courtroom. “If defending Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is a crime, then I’m a criminal,” he said. “And if power belongs to the people, it’s impossible to seize it.”
Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, likewise said earlier that his client never intended to seize government buildings. But he did not deny that Vartanian set up the shadowy group and acquired firearms and explosives for it.
Another major defendant is Father Anton Totonjian, a Catholic Armenian priest from Gyumri who was released from pre-trial custody in January. He stands accused of financing the armed group.
“Everything is fabricated,” Totonjian told journalists at the start of the trial. “Time will tell. I don’t accept anything.”
Most of the other defendants also protested their innocence. They include Vahan Shirkhanian, a veteran politician who had held senior security positions in the Armenian government in the 1990s. He was absent from the opening session of the trial for health reasons.
“Mr. Shirkhanian is simply unable to walk,” his lawyer, Hayk Alumian, told a district court in Yerevan. “The trial cannot take place in his absence.”
The first court hearing was adjourned at the request of two other defense lawyers, who said they need one month to properly familiarize themselves with the high-profile criminal case.