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Armenian War Vets Still in Jail

Karabakh war veterans’ association under pressure after arrests.
One of the lingering consequences of the political crisis in Armenia is that dozens of members of the influential veterans’ group Yerkrapah remain in custody, creating a division between between the authorities and men who fought in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.

The Yerkrapah members were among the opposition supporters detained during or after the March 1 violence that followed the country’s disputed presidential election. Ten people died in the centre of Yerevan, eight of them opposition protestors and two law enforcement officers, and dozens of people were arrested.

Fifty-two people are still in custody charged with instigating violence, organising mass disorder in order to “overthrow the constitutional system”, or illegal possession of weapons.

Yerkrapah, which in Armenian means “custodian of the land”, is a union of volunteers who fought in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Founded during the war in 1993, the association supports veterans and their families and seeks to instil patriotic values in young people. It is estimated to have 27,000 or 28,000 members around the country.

Five of its members have so far been convicted by the courts, 24 remain under arrest and four are still wanted by the police.

Sixty-five-year-old Ashik Martirosian, who was decorated after being wounded in the Karabakh war, is one of a number of veterans from the Shirak region pressing for the release of their comrades.

“I am ready to give up all my medals to the institutions from which I received them – I’ll give my presidential medal back to the president, and my government one back to the government,” said Martirosian. “When our commanders are in prison, I am ashamed to hang these pieces of metal on my chest.”

On May 29, Levon Ter-Petrosian, the opposition leader who lost the election, visited a 11 veterans staging a hunger strike at a monument to the Karabakh war dead on Yerevan’s Erablu hill. He urged them to end their protest, but they refused.

The speaker of parliament, Tigran Torosian, denied that there was a concerted official campaign against Yerkrapah, saying that individuals were being punished for their actions.

“We must never do this [destroy Yerkrapah] – not today, tomorrow or in 100 years’ time,” said Torosian. “The fact that members of Yerkrapah have been arrested does not mean that they are being persecuted for belonging to Yerkrapah. The law-enforcement agencies are obliged to take into custody people who commit crimes, and extraneous circumstances are irrelevant. Our country will always need the Yerkrapah Union.”

Yerkrapah used to be one of the most powerful groups in Armenia, with strong economic interests, widespread business ownership and ties with government. It was not formerly associated with the political opposition.

Its founder and honorary chairman was former defence minister and prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian. After Sarkisian was killed in the shootings in the Armenian parliament in October 1999, Manvel Grigorian, a former deputy defence minister, took over as leader.

In the run-up to the presidential election in February, many of Yerkrapah’s leaders began switching their allegiance from the official presidential candidate, then prime minister Serzh Sarkisian, to Ter-Petrosian, a former president of Armenia.

A week before polling day, member of parliament Myasnik Malkhasian, deputy leader of Yerkrapah, announced he was throwing his weight behind Ter-Petrosian, as did another leading member, deputy prosecutor Gagik Jhangirian.

Jhangirian was sacked from his job the same day for publicly interfering in politics. He was detained after the March 1 clashes, and accused of carrying a metal staff, and now faces charges of “usurping power” which could carry a prison sentence of ten or 15 years. This is the same charge brought against most of the opposition activists who were arrested.

After a month’s enforced leave, deputy defence ministers Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian were also dismissed.

“I believe that the authorities are carrying out a pre-planned operation to destroy Yerkrapah as a structure, as a single force, as they see it as a danger,” said one of the group’s founders, former deputy defence minister Vahan Shirkhanian.

“Arresting dozens of Yerkrapah members, laying trumped-up charges against them, and forcing others to leave Yerkrapah is all in pursuit of the same goal – the ruin and destruction of Yerkapah.”

Former defence minister Vagharshak Harutyunian said that the campaign against Yerkrapah was “dangerous” for Armenia as it would lower morale in the military.

“The destruction of Yerkrapah does great harm to the whole of society, effectively destroying the idea of serving the country on a voluntary basis,” said Harutyunian. “It has an effect both on the moral and psychological atmosphere in the country and on the Karabakh question. This policy will be felt in the military-political balance [with Azerbaijan] and will increase the risk of a resumption of war.”

Some commentators, however, say Yerkrapah has exerted undue political influence.

“The Yerkrapah factor is activated from time to time,” said former deputy speaker , Ara Sahakian, a supporter of Ter-Petrosian.

“In 1998, Vazgen Sarkisian used massive manipulations [in the election] and the Yerkrapah union was his support base. The very same Yerkrapah made [Robert] Kocharian president. Now its role has substantially diminished and a new generation of politicians has appeared.”

Political analyst David Petrosian said the veterans still constituted a powerful political force.

“In the current circumstances, it was a serious problem for our regime to have the kind of organisation you keep an eye on but can’t control,” he said. “At the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008. it became clear that this organisation was not under control.”

Diana Markosian is a journalist with A1+ television in Yerevan. Armenuhi Vardanian in Gyumri contributed to this article.

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