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Armenian security service pressured judge according to wiretapped phone calls

12 September 2018
(Still from the video)

In wiretapped phone conversations between two top security chiefs, the head of Armenia’s National Security Service, Sasun Khachatryan claimed to have ordered a judge to detain former president Robert Kocharyan. In conversations with the head of the Special Investigative Service leaked online, the two also discuss Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ‘ordering the arrest’ of former Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Khachaturov.

The phone conversations between Artur Vanetsyan, Director of the National Security Service (NSS), and Sasun Khachatryan, Head of the Special Investigative Service (SIS), with translated English subtitles, was technically uploaded on YouTube on 5 September but leaked to the public six days later on Tuesday. The two senior security officials convened a press-conference later that day and confirmed the authenticity of the recording.

In their conversation, Vanetsyan and Khachatryan discuss and strategise about the ongoing investigation into the use of military force against 2008 anti-government rallies. The protests, triggered by allegations February 2008’s presidential elections were rigged in favour of Serzh Sargsyan, peaked in a crackdown on 1 March that left ten people dead.

The ‘Russian factor’

In early July, the SIS charged Robert Kocharyan, who served as President of Armenia in 1998–2008 and as the first president of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994–1997, as part of the investigation. On 27 July, Kocharyan was remanded in pre-trial detention but an appeals court released him on bail two weeks later.

The authorities also targeted former Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Khachaturov, charging him with ‘illegally ordering’ the armed forces to suppress demonstrations on 23 February 2008. Khachaturov was also released on bail in late July.

In the taped phone conversations, Vanetsyan and Khachatryan mention the prosecutions of both Kocharyan and Khachaturov. In one instance, Vanetsyan informs Khachatryan he had instructed the judge presiding over Kocharyan’s case to ‘have courage’. ‘Whether you want to or not, you will arrest him’, the NSS head quotes himself as telling the judge.

In other segments of the recording, Vanetsyan urges the SIS Head not to ‘touch’ Yuri Khachaturov, even if the prime minister tells them to ‘cage’ the former official. Vanetsyan cites the ‘Russian’ factor, referring to Khachaturov’s status as Secretary General of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

According to article 11 of the CSTO’s founding agreement, the Secretary-General is considered an international civil servant and he and his family enjoy diplomatic privileges and immunities under the 1961 Vienna Convention. Vanetsyan says it would be a ‘shame’ for Armenia if Khachaturov’s planned arrest went ahead.

His arrest was met with hostility in Russia. Unnamed source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told Russian media his arrest was ‘unprofessional’, and on 31 July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called developments in Armenia a ‘cause for concern, including from the point of view of normal operations of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] organisations Armenia is a member of’.

On 4 August, the SIS, an agency whose Head shrugged off Vanetsyan’s warnings in the leaked call, permitted Khachaturov to leave for Russia on CSTO Secretary duties.

A ‘conspiracy against Armenian statehood’

During the joint press conference on Tuesday Vanetsyan denied speaking to the judge in Kocharyan’s case and said the Prosecutor General’s Office would investigate the wiretapping of the phone conversation. Both denied Pashinyan had interfered in judicial matters.

The two also levelled several accusations against Robert Kocharyan during the press conference. These included claims by Khachatryan to be in possession of papers proving the former president’s financial crimes in taking over the hotel Congress and other corruption and ‘money laundering’ cases, which he promised would soon be made public.

The SIS Head also revealed the names of those he identified as members of a clandestine military unit. He said that contrary to Kocharyan’s claims in 2008, they, not armed protesters, were responsible for the death of a police officer during the 2008 crackdown. Vanetsyan accused the former president of jeopardising security along the border with Azerbaijan by using military units against the crowds.

Both senior officials vowed to step down if there was public demand for this.

In a live Facebook video address on Tuesday, Pashinyan denied meddling in the court cases and reiterated the need to investigate the 2008 crackdown, something Pashinyan said the wiretapped recording was being used to thwart.

Later that day, at a rally for Yerevan’s mayoral elections, the Armenian Prime Minister dubbed the leak a ‘conspiracy against Armenian statehood’ organised by ‘oligarchs’ and their own ‘secret services’ who had imported wiretapping technology to the country.

Pashinyan said he had ordered the heads of the Police and NSS to quickly find the perpetrators. ‘I'll put on my camouflage [t-shirt] and will put everything in order personally, you'll be shocked by the YouTube videos that expose you’, Pashinyan said in an apparent threat to the leakers.

‘Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, you have challenged the nation; behold now the people’s answer!’ Pashinyan warned.

On Wednesday, the Special Investigation Committee said they had launched a probe into the wiretapping case.

Citing media expert Samvel Martirosyan, the Armenian Times reported that on 8 September, while Pashinyan was visiting Moscow, a number of anonymous users posted the recording on Twitter and Reddit, but that the story was not picked up by Armenian media agencies until 11 September.

A ‘political vendetta’

On Tuesday, Armen Ashotyan, a member of the National Assembly from the Republican faction, slammed Pashinyan and his team for ‘politically motivated’ prosecutions and called on his colleagues to establish a parliamentary investigative commision. Eduard Sharmazanov, Vice Chair of the Armenian National Assembly, supported the initiative and told Armenian news agency Lragir that the commission ‘will be established soon’.

The office of former President Kocharyan also made a statement on Tuesday calling the leaked recording proof that the authorities were pursuing a ‘political vendetta’, not the truth of the 2008 events. The statement accused Pashinyan of ‘personally coordinating’ the prosecution against the former president.

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.