YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Fourteen members of “Sasna Tsrer: radical opposition group went on trial on Thursday almost one year after most of them seized, together with two dozen other men, a police base in Yerevan in what they called an uprising against Armenia’s government.
The defendants are facing a wide range of charges, including illegal seizure of government buildings and weapons and hostage taking. Two of them also stand accused of murdering three police officers during the armed group’s two-week standoff with Armenian security forces. All suspects deny the accusations.
The gunmen stormed the police compound in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district and took several police officers hostage on July 17, 2016. They demanded President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and the release of Zhirayr Sefilian, the jailed leader of their Founding Parliament movement.
Sefilian was arrested on June 20, 2016 for allegedly plotting an armed revolt against the government. He denies the accusation as politically motivated.
Security forces avoided storming the Erebuni facility during the standoff, which also sparked anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan. Instead, they shot and wounded some of the armed oppositionists. The 20 remaining gunmen holed up in the compound surrendered to the authorities on July 31, hours after freeing medics who were also held hostage in the besieged compound.
The defendants were greeted with rapturous applause from their relatives and friends and struck a defiant note as they appeared before an Erebuni district court. They refused to stand up when the presiding judge entered the courtroom.
Some defendants, including the gunmen’s leader Varuzhan Avetisian, made angry statements denouncing the court and protesting their innocence. “The Criminal Code does not apply to us, and you are puppets,” declared Avetisian.
Three other suspects reacted furiously when the judge told them to keep silent. Police officers deployed in the courtroom intervened to calm them down. The first court hearing in the high-profile trial adjourned moments later.
The defendants also include two men who were not part of the armed group itself. One of them, Khachatur Gichian, stands accused of providing a heavy truck that transported some of the gunmen to the Erebuni police station.
The other suspect, U.S. citizen Garo Yegnoukian, was charged with having assisted the gunmen by urging Armenians to rally near the besieged compound and spreading “false information” about security forces during in the standoff. Yegnoukian has repeatedly denied the charges.
According to Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), more than 60 persons are prosecuted in connection with the deadly hostage crisis. The Office of the Prosecutor-General said on Thursday that 18 of them will go on a separate trial soon.
The U.S. State Department condemned the Erebuni attack, while urging the authorities in Yerevan to exercise “appropriate restraint.” The European Union Delegation in Armenia likewise called it “unacceptable.”