YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — A veteran politician who had held senior positions in Armenia’s government in the 1990s was detained at the weekend in an ongoing investigation into political assassinations that were allegedly plotted by dozens of other arrested Armenians.
Vahan Shirkhanian was taken into custody on suspicion of being part of a clandestine organization which the National Security Service (NSS) says planned to murder Armenian officials and commit other “unprecedented” crimes. He was expected to be formally charged and remanded in pre-trial custody on Monday.
The NSS and the Armenian police arrested 10 people late last month when they raided a house in Yerevan and claimed to have found a weapons cache. At least 11 more people were arrested in the following days.
The NSS declined on Saturday to specify the total number of detainees. Some Armenian media outlets have put at about 50.
The arrested people are said to be members of an obscure nationalist group led by Artur Vartanian, a 34-year-old Armenian national who reportedly lived in Spain from 1997 until his return to Armenia in April this year. The group announced its existence on social media early this year with a video purportedly shot in Kessab, an Armenian-populated town in northern Syria.
NSS officers detained Shirkhanian immediately after searching his Yerevan apartment. “He was taken by surprise,” Shirkhanian’s lawyer, Tigran Ter-Yesayan, said afterwards.
Shirkhanian, 68, was a prominent member of Armenia’s first post-Communist government that came to power in 1990. He served as deputy defense minister before being appointed in June 1999 as deputy prime minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargisian.
Shirkhanian became particularly influential in the wake of the October 1999 armed attack on the Armenian parliament that left Sargisian, speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials dead. He led government factions that suspected then President Robert Kocharian of masterminding the killings and tried unsuccessfully to unseat him. Kocharian’s eventual victory in the power struggle resulted in Shirkhanian’s resignation in May 2000.