YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — In the largest drug trafficking case in Armenia’s history, a Turkish man arrested in Yerevan a year ago has been convicted of smuggling 850 kilograms of heroin into the country and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
A court in the southeastern Armenian town of Goris also gave this week a 17-year prison sentence to the Georgian driver of a heavy truck in which Armenian customs officers deployed on the Iranian border found the Class A drug.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) announced the separate arrests of the driver, Avtandil Martiashvili, and Turkish citizen Osman Ugurlu in January 2014. The NSS described Ugurlu, 41, as “one of the organizers” of the unprecedented drug trafficking operation. It said the drug was hidden in the truck’s “specially-fitted cache” installed in Turkey.
Armenian prosecutors claimed during the subsequent trial of the two men that Ugurlu conspired with two other Turkish nationals to transport huge amounts of heroin from Iran to Europe via Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine. They said the three Turks set up a cargo shipment company in Georgia for that purpose in 2013.
Both defendants pleaded not guilty to the accusations, with Ugurlu claiming that he did not know what the truck was loaded with. “I am accused of trafficking something with which I have nothing to do,” Hetq.am quoted him as telling the Goris court late last month. “I don’t consider myself a criminal, and Turkey’s police and national intelligence know that.”
Martiashavili, 66, likewise insisted that he did not know that he is transporting heroin from Iran to Armenia in January 2014. His Armenian and Georgian lawyers said the prosecution has failed to prove the opposite.
One of the lawyers, Teymuraz Maysuradze, emphasized on Tuesday the fact that the Iranian customs service failed to detect the heroin in the truck driven by his client. “I think that Iranian and Turkish authorities had a personal interest in that,” Maysuradze told the court, according to the Yerevan daily “Zhoghovurd.”
The court refused to acquit either man, essentially endorsing the accusations levelled against them. Both defendants are likely to appeal against the verdict.
The huge drug bust was by far the most serious instance of heroin smuggling into Armenia ever reported by law-enforcement authorities. Their previous record was set in late 2010 when the Armenian police claimed to have confiscated 7 kilograms of heroin smuggled by Armenian and Iranian citizens.
Iran is thought to be the main source of drug trafficking in and through Armenia. Dozens and possibly hundreds of Iranians have been imprisoned in Armenia on corresponding charges over the past two decades. According to Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General, at least 25 of them were repatriated in 2012-2013 to serve the rest of their prison sentences in the Islamic Republic.