Armenian Opposition Leader’s Arrest Extended

Armenian Opposition Leader’s Arrest Extended

A court in Yerevan has extended by three more months the arrest of Armen Ashotian, a prominent opposition politician facing what he calls politically motivated charges, ignoring an appeal for his release signed by other oppositionists.

Ashotian, 48, was an influential figure during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule, serving as education minister from 2012-2016 and subsequently heading the Armenian parliament’s foreign relations committee. He has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ever since the 2018 “velvet revolution” that toppled Sarkisian.

Ashotian was charged in November 2022 with abuse of power and money laundering in connection with his past chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of Yerevan’s Mkhitar Heratsi Medical University. The accusations, strongly denied by him, stem from a number of property acquisitions carried out by the university administration on his alleged orders. Armenia’s Investigative Committee claims that those deals caused the state-run university substantial financial damage.

The law-enforcement agency also charged Ashotian with “waste” of public funds following his arrest in June 2023 which it attributed to his alleged attempts to obstruct its investigation. The oppositionist, who is a deputy chairman of Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), denies this accusation as well.

Vahe Dolmazian, the judge presiding over Ashotian’s ongoing trial, on Monday allowed the investigators to continue holding him in detention until April 15. Accordingly, the former police officer and prosecutor, who took the bench only 17 months ago, rejected the defense lawyers’ petition to free Ashotian on bail or move him to house arrest.

The petition was backed up by a “guarantee” signed by about a dozen parliamentarians and other opposition figures. They pledged in writing that Ashotian will demonstrate “proper behavior” and not go into hiding or obstruct justice if set free.

Armenia — Levon Zurabian.

Surprisingly, the signatories included Levon Zurabian, the deputy chairman of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) party led by another ex-president, Levon Ter-Petrosian. The HAK was in opposition to Sarkisian during his 2008-2018 rule.

Speaking during Monday’s court hearing in Yerevan, Zurabian described Ashotian as a political prisoner who is prosecuted for denouncing Pashinyan’s policies on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and other issues.

“I have no doubts that the purpose of this criminal case is to silence a critic, rather than expose and punish corruption,” Zurabian told the court.

Sarkisian’s HHK has likewise condemned Ashotian’s arrest as government retribution for his harsh criticism of Pashinyan’s Karabakh policy. Pashinyan’s government and political allies say that he did not order the investigators and courts to prosecute his outspoken critic.