Nearly two years after resigning amid mass protests against his continued rule, Armenia’s former President Serzh Sarkisian went on trial on Tuesday on corruption charges which he rejects as politically motivated.
Sarkisian stands accused of giving privileged treatment in 2013 to his longtime friend and businessman Barsegh Barseghian which cost the state 489 million drams (just over $1 million) in losses. According to law-enforcement authorities, he made sure that a government tender for supplies of subsidized diesel fuel to farmers is won by Barseghian’s Flash company, rather than another fuel importer that offered a lower price.
Sarkisian is standing trial together with Barseghian, former Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetian and two other former Agriculture Ministry officials also indicted as part of the criminal case. All five suspects deny any wrongdoing.
Sarkisian’s lawyers again dismissed the embezzlement charges leveled against him when they spoke during the first session of the high-profile trial at a district court in Yerevan. One of them insisted that they are based on “contradictory, incredible and illogical” testimony given by a single person.
The trial prosecutor, Arsen Martirosian, denied that, saying that investigators collected enough evidence to press the charges against the man who ruled Armenia from 2008-2018.
The incriminating pre-trial testimony was reportedly given by Karapetian. The former minister was jeered by the ex-president’s supporters when he entered the courtroom moments before the start of the trial. He refused to talk to reporters afterwards.
The defense lawyers also alleged numerous procedural violations committed by investigators. They accused Martirosian of being biased against their client and demanded his replacement by another prosecutor. The presiding judge, Vahe Misakian, adjourned the court hearing to consider the demand.
Sarkisian, 65, was greeted by more than 100 supporters rallying outside the district court building when he arrived for the hearing. Addressing the small crowd, he seemed to link the case against him to his position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“From the highest podiums of the world I have periodically stated and will repeat now that Nagorno-Karabakh will never be part of Azerbaijan. This has been the supreme goal of my life and it will accompany me to the end,” the Karabakh-born ex-president said in a short speech greeted with applause and “President!” chants.
The crowd included senior members of the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) still headed by Sarkisian. In a statement issued earlier in the day, the HHK leadership similarly alleged a connection between the trial and the current state of the Karabakh negotiating process.
“With such steps the authorities aim to deflect the Armenian people’s attention from numerous internal and external problems that are becoming more acute by the day,” said the statement.
HHK representatives claimed earlier that their leader was indicted in early December in retaliation for his public criticism of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. Law-enforcement officials and Pashinian’s political allies brushed aside those statements.
Sarkisian accused Pashinian’s government of jeopardizing democracy and stifling dissent in a November 20 speech at a congress of the European People’s Party held in Croatia. He had kept a low profile since resigning in April 2018.
Pashinian repeatedly implicated Sarkisian, his family and political entourage in corruption both before and after coming to power in the “Velvet Revolution” led by him.