There is a mild sallowness on the faces of those living in imprisonment․ From their colorless faces, you can even presume whether they have been remanded in custody or not. When you have been covering trials for many years, after a period of time, this is no longer unusual. But hearing verdicts being handed down never becomes ordinary. There are cases when the atmosphere created as a result of a verdict shakes you to your core.
Nine years ago, the verdict in the case of Karen Mehrabyan and others accused of high treason was handed down: imprisonment for 14 years, 10 years, 10 years․․․ With every word uttered by the court, the faces of those hearing the verdict became whiter, and it seemed as though they were dying where they stood.
The mother of one of the defendants screamed in horror when she heard her son’s sentence: 10 years in prison. The son wanted to approach his mother, but a commotion broke out between the bailiffs and attendees. The hearing was interrupted.
Being tried for treason is a very heavy, unspeakably emotional ordeal for both the accused and their relatives. There are only a handful of criminal cases filed under this article in Armenia. However, lately, in particular after the 2020 Artsakh War, a number of people have been publicly accused of high treason and espionage; and the media hype makes it seem that there are traitors and agents in every corner.
News of Treason During the War
On October 1, 2020, on the fifth day of the war, the National Security Service (NSS) issued a statement about a case of treason committed by a former high-ranking military official. According to the report, this man had held positions of authority for many years and collected information containing state secrets. He regularly traveled to Georgia, where he had numerous meetings and phone calls with Azerbaijani intelligence service officers in the Azerbaijani Embassy and other places, gradually sharing or handing over information to them.
The report did not mention any dates, when this incident was revealed, when the criminal case was filed, or when the individual was accused of the crime. Perhaps this can be justified by the secret nature of the NSS’ activities. However, the question arises: Why was this case publicized during the height of the 2020 Artsakh War?
The NSS also announced a second case of state treason five days before the end of the war, on November 5, 2020. In this case, the accused citizen was recruited and paid by the Azerbaijani special services in Istanbul to gather and share intelligence with them.
Responding to EVN Report’s inquiry, the NSS confirmed that only two criminal charges were filed under Article 299 (high treason) of Armenia’s Criminal Code, one in March and the other in November 2020 and that the investigation for both cases is ongoing. It remains unclear why the public was informed about the case launched in March during the war.
“Traitors Have No Place in Our Ranks․․․”
On October 8, 2020, the 13th day of the war, people’s emotions were rattled by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Facebook post alleging that certain people went to sections of the front lines and tried to convince soldiers that he had sold out the territories, that this was a pre-arranged war, that they were left in a slaughterhouse to be massacred so that the agreement would not be exposed, that there is no point in defending their posts. The PM went on to say that “according to some information, by persuading the soldiers, even ordering them, they forced them to desert some military positions to the enemy.”
According to Pashinyan, there were people spreading such information on different parts of the frontline․ “All of them must be found and held accountable. Traitors have no place in our ranks; such people must not stand next to our heroic generals, officers, soldiers, volunteers and freedom fighters.”
In this same announcement, Pashinyan stated that, on his orders, “an investigation has been launched by the NSS, and one of the main instigators, a resident of Stepanakert, was found and arrested in Yerevan.”
On the same day, the NSS issued a statement noting that a certain N.M., suspected of committing a crime within the framework of the criminal case launched by the Investigation Department of the National Security Service of Armenia, had been arrested.
It is notable that the statement does not mention the specific article of the Criminal Code the criminal charges had been filed but clarifies what is considered high treason and what the consequences for that crime are․ “Crossing over to the side of the enemy, among other things, is manifested by making calls to disobey authorities during military operations.”
Incidentally, during a meeting with journalists on October 27, 2020, then-Deputy Director (now Director) of the NSS Armen Abazyan stated that one criminal case had been filed on the grounds of treason, referring to the arrest of a high-ranking military official.
The NSS also confirmed that, over the past 10 years, six criminal cases (one in 2011, one in 2014, two in 2015, and two in 2020) have been filed and investigated by the NSS Investigation Department regarding treason. Four of these cases were indicted and sent to trial.
This response, as well as the NSS statements, allows us to conclude that the criminal case filed on the instruction of the Prime Minister on October 8, 2020, was not for high treason (Article 299). Meanwhile, this case was politicized and accusations of high treason began to be directed against different people precisely during the war.
A Group of Lawyers Demand That Actions of Pashinyan and the Government Be Viewed From the Prism of High Treason
In December 2020, more than a hundred lawyers filed a report of high treason to the Prosecutor General’s office. The document suggests that, as a result of Pashinyan’s actions, negotiations on Artsakh ended in a deadlock; military equipment was acquired, which proved ineffective during the war; and that the general mobilization under martial law was insufficiently organized. According to the document, Pashinyan also shared classified information; that having the opportunity, he did not stop the war; and on November 9, he signed an agreement, by which he endangered statehood, territorial integrity and so on.
According to Ara Zohrabyan, the President of the Chamber of Advocates, the Prosecutor General’s Office sent this report to Armenia’s Special Investigation Service (SIS). Meanwhile, the SIS avoided filing a criminal case or making a decision about rejecting the filing, attaching the report to the case files of another criminal case.
Lawyers Ara Zohrabyan and Armine Fanyan appealed the SIS’ action. On March 1, the court ruled to uphold the lawyers’ complaint, recognizing the violation of their right․
The SIS confirmed, in a letter to EVN Report on March 22, 2020, that no criminal cases have been investigated by them under Articles 299 (high treason) and 302 (espionage) of the Criminal Code in the past ten years.
The Hunt for Spies
During the war, the NSS announced the arrest of foreigners suspected of committing espionage: “As a result of relevant measures taken, evidence was found on the collection of certain information by foreign citizens about military equipment, armament transportation and military unit locations of the Armenian Armed Forces, as well as information about those… who participated in the general mobilization declared under martial law…” The report mentions that the foreigners were arrested on October 2, 2020.
On January 16, 2021, Mikayel Minasyan, the former Armenian Ambassador to the Vatican and son-in-law of Serzh Sargsyan, announced and then published a document alleging that the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ararat Mirzoyan, is a Turkish special services agent, and that he first caught the attention of these services in 2005, when he was conducting research on the process of genocide recognition in the United States. Minasyan also alleged that Mirzoyan became a “double agent,” that this was known to the NSS and that he was threatened with punishment for high treason.
The NSS refuted this information on the same day stating that “it is an obvious lie and has no connection with reality,” as did Ararat Mirzoyan who stated that “this nonsense should be appropriately addressed by the proper legal authorities.”
On March 9, 2021, the press was flooded with other news that UNICEF Representative to Armenia Marianne Clark-Hattingh had been declared “persona non grata” by the Armenian authorities for spying for Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan later announced: “UNICEF Representative to Armenia Marianne Clark-Hattingh’s shortcomings in the implementation of her mandate and her non-cooperative work style were problematic for the Armenian side, and so the Armenian government decided to terminate her tenure as UNICEF Representative in the Republic of Armenia. The UN Resident Coordinator and UNICEF representatives were informed about the decision.”
The information about alleged espionage or declaring the representative a “persona non grata” was not confirmed.
Responding to EVN Report’s inquiry about cases filed under Article 302 (espionage) of the Criminal Code, the NSS on March 19 confirmed that in the past ten years, six criminal cases (in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020, each) were filed under specific parts of Article 302. The proceedings of five of those cases were suspended, with the preliminary investigation of one currently ongoing.
There have been numerous public accusations related to espionage and high treason since the start of the war. Despite all the noise, only one case of high treason and one case of espionage were filed during and after the war.
A few weeks ago, the NSS announced the end of the preliminary investigation into the high treason case. According to the case material, the citizen recruited by the Azerbaijani intelligence services in Turkey collected official state information containing secrets and information of other nature, which he personally, and through his wife, passed on to a foreign intelligence officer for $1,500. This is assumed to be the same case that the NSS reported about on November 5 of last year.
Incidentally, on March 25, the National Assembly adopted the bill on making changes to the Criminal Code, by which penalties for high treason and espionage will be significantly toughened. After the law enters into force, high treason will be punishable by 20 years to life imprisonment (it is currently 10-15 years of imprisonment), and espionage by 15-20 years of imprisonment (currently 8-15 years).
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