The trial of Serzh Sargsyan, who is charged with embezzling state funds, has begun. Sargsyan, who was forced to step down during the 2018 revolution, is charged with embezzlement.
Sargsyan, who forced out of office during the 2018 revolution, was charged on 4 December 2019 after being called in for questioning at the Special Investigative Services (SIS). The first hearing was on 25 February.
He is charged alongside businessperson Barsegh Beglaryan and three former Agriculture Ministry officials including former Minister Sergo Karapetyan.
If found guilty Sargsyan could face between four to eight years in prison. He has been barred from leaving the country.
According to the prosecution, ֏490 million ($1 million) was embezzled from the Armenian state in 2013. The embezzlement allegedly involved a state assistance programme from the Ministry of Agriculture that was intended to provide farmers with affordable diesel fuel.
Sargsyan allegedly meddled in a government tender for the fuel supplier and ensured that Flash — one of Armenia’s main fuel suppliers — was chosen instead of another fuel importer that offered lower prices. Flash is owned by prominent businessperson Barsegh Beglaryan.
Both Sargsyan and Beglaryan have denied the charges.
Sargsyan’s lawyers and the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which Sargsyan still chairs, have called the charges ‘political persecution’.
On 30 January, according to a preliminary investigation by the SIS, enough evidence was found to move forward with a trial.
Hours before the trial, the RPA published an announcement condemning the trial as political persecution.
‘The government’s aim is to divert the people’s attention from these many domestic and foreign issues which are growing more tense day by day.’
The announcement also called for Armenia’s judiciary to ensure a completely fair trial.
‘Legality, due process, and presumption of innocence’
Before the hearing in the Yerevan Court of First Instance, a crowd of Sargsyan supporters had gathered to protest the proceedings.
Those present included RPA spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov, RPA Vice President Armen Ashotyan, Sargsyan’s nephew Hayk Sargsyan, former head of Armenia’s Football Federation Ruben Hayrapetyan, former Head of Police Levon Yeranosyan and former National Assembly Chair Ara Babloyan.
The latter four are currently under indictment in several different criminal cases.
In an interview with reporters, Babloyan said that he knows Sargsyan well and is confident that the former Armenian president would have never meddled to decide which company should win a tender.
Babloyan said he believed the case to be politically motivated.
Upon his arrival, Sargsyan approached the waiting crowd and gave a short address.
‘There is still hope that there are judges in Armenia for whom justice is above everything’, the former president said. ‘Just like how for me, for you and for the majority of the Armenian people the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh is above everything.’
Sargsyan didn’t mention the trial in his remarks and did not answer reporters’ questions before entering the court building.
During the trial, one of Sargsyan’s lawyers, former MP Ruben Hakobyan filed a motion to have the state prosecutor on the case Arsen Martirosyan recuse himself from the case.
‘There were several violations and shortcomings during the preliminary investigation of this trial,’ Hakobyan said. ‘The prosecutor not only did not respond to those but also violated the legality, due process and presumption of innocence of the trial.’
According to Hakobyan, the preliminary investigation did not try to find evidence that would prove Sargsyan’s innocence. Instead, everything was done to ensure Sargsyan becoming a suspect in the case.
‘Sargsyan was brought in for questioning on 4 December, immediately after which he was criminally charged’, Hakobyan said.
Hakobyan also stated that a person can become a suspect if there was enough evidence against them, however, ‘in this case there is only one person’s contradictory, illogical, and partially unacceptable confession [former Agriculture Minister Sergo Karapetyan].’
Prosecutor Martirosyan denied the claims brought forward by Sargsyan’s legal team. During the trial, he claimed that after examining all the evidence brought forward, the court will see that the indictment was based on more than just a single confession.
‘At this stage I do not want to mention [all the evidence against Sargsyan and the other suspects], taking into account that it will become public soon for all sides and the media to see’, Martirosyan said.
On February 26, judge Vahe Misakyan, who is overseeing the case, announced that the court has denied the motion and that Martirosyan will not recuse himself.
The next hearing in the case against Sargsyan will take place on 26 March.