Former president of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan made his first appearance in court on charges of stealing state money. And he appears to be using his status as a war hero as his defense.
As he arrived at the court building on February 25, he was greeted by dozens of supporters who braved the cold rain. They carried signs like "Artsakh will never be Azerbaijan - Serzh Sargsyan." (Artsakh is the self-declared republic that broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s and is now controlled by Armenian forces.)
That may seem a non-sequitur for an embezzlement trial. But Sargsyan and his supporters have portrayed the charges against him as being politically motivated, the result of the desire of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan - who toppled Sargsyan in street protests in 2018 - to silence him and the rest of the country's opposition. And they counteraccuse Pashinyan of wobbling on Artsakh (known to the rest of the world as Nagorno-Karabakh), the country's highest national security priority.
So when Sargsyan took up a megaphone to address the crowd, he did not mention embezzlement. "For those for whom justice is paramount, like me and you and the majority of the Armenian people, the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh is above everything," he said. "I ask you to never forget the security of Karabakh. It will never be part of Azerbaijan, this has been the goal of my life and it will accompany me forever and everywhere."
After being ousted in 2018, Sargsyan had kept an exceedingly low profile. But he started speaking out late last year, sharply attacking Pashinyan. Shortly thereafter, he was indicted on charges that he had steered a government fuel contract to a more expensive bidder. It was not made clear in the indictment how, or if, Sargsyan personally profited from the intervention. But by facing indictment he became one in a long list of former officials to face trial, including his own predecessor as president, Robert Kocharyan.
Many in the crowd were Sargsyan's allies in the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
Eduard Sharmazanov, one party leader, refused to answer journalists' questions. "I didn't come here to give interviews; I came to support the Artsakh hero Serzh Sargsyan." (Sargsyan, before his political career, was a senior commander in the war against Azerbaijan.)
Hayk Mamijanyan, president of the Republicans' youth wing, took the megaphone as well. "There are people in this country who threaten the political opposition with prison and people who, to save themselves, give false testimonies," he told the crowd.
The hearing itself focused on a request by Sargsyan's lawyers to remove the prosecutor from the case for a number of alleged procedural violations in the preliminary investigation. And they claimed that there was no evidence tying Sargsyan to any crime.
"The law stipulates that a person may be indicted only if the evidence is sufficient, while Serzh Sargsyan's indictment consists of one person's contradictory, illogical, and partly inadmissible testimony," his lawyer, Ruben Hakobyan, told the court. A ruling on the prosecutor was expected to come on February 26.