YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenia’s Court of Appeals on Wednesday freed Zhirayr Sefilian and six of his associates who were arrested two years ago on charges of plotting an armed revolt against the government.
The Court of Appeals refused to acquit any of the defendants. It only shortened their prison sentences and granted them parole. In particular, Sefilian’s jail term was reduced from 10.5 to 5.5 years.
The court agreed to free the Lebanese-born leader of the Founding Parliament movement after 12 Armenian parliamentarians guaranteed in writing his “proper behavior” and cooperation with judicial and law-enforcement authorities. Each of the lawmakers representing the Tsarukian Bloc also had to post bail worth 500,000 drams (just over $1,000).
Sefilian was charged with forming an armed group to attack “strategic” facilities, including a military base just outside Yerevan. He also allegedly planned to organize riots in Yerevan during the April 2015 commemorations of the centenary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
Sefilian and all but one of the other defendants denied these accusations as politically motivated during their high-profile trial that ended in March. Their lawyers appealed against the resulting guilty verdicts.
Sefilian, 51, was arrested in June 2016 less than a month before three dozen members and supporters of Founding Parliament seized a police compound in Yerevan’s Erebuni district to demand his release and then President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation. The gunmen laid down their weapons after a two-week standoff with security forces which left three police officers dead. They are now standing three separate trials.
Over the past week at least five of the jailed militants have been set freed pending the outcome of those trials. These developments are widely attributed to the recent change of the country’s government which followed weeks of massive street protests led by Nikol Pashinian. The latter was elected Armenia’s prime minister on May 8.
District courts in Yerevan began releasing the militants on June 6 the day after they and the other arrested members of the armed group issued a statement voicing support for Pashinian’s government. They also said that they are renouncing violent methods of political struggle.
A well-known veteran of the 1991-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Sefilian has been a vocal critic of both Serzh Sarkisian and the previous Armenian president, Robert Kocharian. In 2006, he was arrested shortly after setting up a union of fellow war veterans opposed to any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The authorities claimed that they planned to mount an armed uprising against Kocharian.
Sefilian was cleared of the coup charge during his subsequent trial. Still, he spent 18 months in prison for illegal arms possession.