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Armenia’s jailed opposition leader released with help from MPs

Jirayr Sefilian is the latest opposition member to be released ahead of elections in which they are expected to play a role.

Hardline Armenian opposition leader Jirayr Sefilian has been let out of prison, the latest in a string of imprisoned opposition members released with the help of lawmakers from the country's new ruling coalition.

On June 13, Armenia’s court of appeals released Sefilian, the leader of the opposition group Founding Parliament. A Lebanese-born hero of the Karabakh war and longtime foe of former president Serzh Sargsyan, Sefilian was arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in June 2016 and sentenced to over 10 years in prison in March 2018, the last month of Sargsyan’s presidency.

Newly elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had called the decision “a bogus verdict,” and over the years has repeatedly called Sefilian a political prisoner.

Earlier in May, the same court released former presidential candidate Andrias Ghukasyan and Founding Parliament member Garo Yegnukian. Both had appeared supportive of the new government, and Sefilian earlier had endorsed Pashinyan.

Pashinyan's government is preparing for a snap election, and the released politicians are expected to play a role. Last week, Pashinyan said he won’t rush the election because he wanted to give all political forces time to prepare. Ghukasyan is already raising funds to establish an Armenian Constructive Party, and Sefilian’s allies are expected to register a party, as well.

Lawmakers in the Pashinyan-led Yelk bloc have been playing a crucial role in the release of several hardline opposition figures jailed under Sargsyan. In Sefilian’s case, the judge demanded guarantee letters from thirteen National Assembly MPs, each of whom also had to pay a bail of 500,000 Armenian drams, 6.5 million drams overall (amounting to about $13,500).

One letter was signed by Yelk bloc MP Alen Simonyan, and the remaining twelve by representatives of the Tsarukyan faction. Headed by the infamous oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, the faction was a systemic opposition party to the formerly ruling Republican Party.

After Sargsyan resigned in May, Tsarukyan and his faction switched sides and endorsed Pashinyan, playing a key role in his election and becoming a de-facto member of the Pashinyan-controlled ruling majority in parliament.

Asked why MPs from an “oligarch” faction petitioned for the release of a radical opposition leaders, a source close to Sefilian told Eurasianet, “they wanted to win our trust.” (The source used a more colorful Armenian expression literally translating as something like “they wanted to get in our ass.”)

At the same June 13 hearing another Founding Parliament member, Gevorg Safaryan, and five other co-defendants in the alleged coup case were released on police bond. Safaryan’s letter of guarantee was signed by Yelk MPs Alen Simonyan and Hayk Konjoryan.

Earlier in June, Yelk's Simonyan and Konjoryan, as well as MPs from the Tsarukyan faction, signed guarantee letters for Aram Manukyan, a member of the armed opposition group Sasna Tsrer. The previous month, Founding Parliament President Garegin Chugaszyan was released with a letter signed by First Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan.

Also released on June 13 was Sedrak Nazaryan, another Sasna Tsrer gunman. He was the sixth member of the group to be released on bond or bail, along with Manukyan, Areg Kyureghyan, Aram Hakobyan, Hovhannes Vardanian, and Tigran Sarkisian. Each had spent more than 20 months in pretrial detention.

Grigor Atanesian is a freelance journalist who covers Armenia.

Armenia’s jailed opposition leader released with help from MPs

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