YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—The Armenian parliament voted on Tuesday to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest and prosecute the leader of its largest opposition group, Gagik Tsarukyan, on charges rejected by him as politically motivated.
Addressing the parliament controlled by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step bloc, Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian alleged that Tsarukyan “created and led an organized group” that bought more than 17,000 votes for his Prosperous Armenia Party during parliamentary elections held in April 2017. Davtian said the NSS has collected documents and testimony showing that the vote bribes were handed out to residents of the Gegharkunik province.
Tsarukyan and other Prosperous Armenia Party lawmakers vehemently denied the accusations when they spoke on the parliament floor before the first vote. They said that law-enforcement authorities have not produced any evidence of his involvement in the alleged vote buying.
They again claimed that Pashinyan ordered the criminal proceedings in response to Tsarukyan’s demands for the entire Armenian government’s resignation voiced on June 5.
Tsarukyan stood by his claims that the government has failed to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country and tackle severe socioeconomic consequences of the deadly epidemic.
“The end of your revolution has come,” Tsarukyan declared, referring to the 2018 protest movement that brought Pashinyan to power.
“Eighty or ninety percent of the people believed in you and the revolution,” he said. “But today even 5 percent do not believe.”
The Prosperous Armenia Party leader also said that he is undaunted by the prospect of his imprisonment and will “go to the end” in challenging the authorities. He claimed that with their “fabricated” criminal case they are only “making a hero” out of him.
“This is temporary, [it will last for] only one or two months, not longer,” he added in his angry speech. “You must understand this before it’s too late. You are standing on the brink of an abyss.”
“Tsarukyan and our party represent a considerable part of the people,” said Arman Abovyan, a senior Prosperous Armenia Party deputy. “You are at war with the people.”
Immediately after finishing his speech and leaving the parliament building, Tsarukyan was surrounded by NSS officers and taken to the NSS headquarters for further questioning. Prosperous Armenia Party representatives said that the security service illegally detained him before securing the parliament’s consent. Parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan insisted, however, that Tsarukyan was not detained.
The Bright Armenia Party, the other opposition force represented in the parliament, also said that the accusations of vote buying are politically motivated. Its leader, Edmon Marukyan, dismissed as hypocritical Pashinyan allies’ harsh criticism of Tsarukyan voiced since June 5.
Marukyan argued that Pashinyan repeatedly cut political deals with Tsarukyan following the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.” “You are not honest and sincere,” he said, referring to the ruling bloc.
In his concluding remarks, Davtian insisted that the criminal case against the opposition leader and wealthy businessman is a “purely legal process.” The chief prosecutor said the NSS opened the case in February, more than three months before Tsarukyan lambasted the government in unusually strong terms.
Leaders of the parliament’s pro-government majority also denied any political motives behind the crackdown. Mirzoyan said the opposition must not “politicize the legal process.”
“Everyone is equal before the law regardless of whether or not they lead a political party,” said the speaker close to Pashinyan.
Both parliamentary opposition forces decided to boycott the ensuing separate votes on lifting Tsarukyan’s immunity from prosecution and allowing his arrest. “We will not participate in this farce,” said Marukyan.
As a result, only 87 of the 132 deputies of the National Assembly voted in the secret ballot. They all backed the prosecutor’s demands.
Pashinyan’s My Step controls 88 parliament seats. Two of its deputies were absent from Tuesday’s session, suggesting that Tsarukyan’s prosecution was unanimously backed by the 86 other pro-government lawmakers.
The Prosperous Armenia Party holds 26 seats, having finished second in the last general elections held in December 2018.
As the parliament began debating the matter in the morning the NSS announced that it launched on Monday a separate investigation into other instances of alleged vote buying by the Prosperous Armenia Party.
In a statement, the security service said that a senior Prosperous Armenia Party figure, Naira Zohrabyan, has repeatedly admitted in her private conversations that Tsarukyan’s party had paid Armenians to vote for it in various elections. The statement contained a relevant quote attributed to Zohrabyan. It did not specify whether the NSS eavesdropped on the opposition politician’s conversations.
Zohrabyan angrily denied these allegations. She suggested that her phones were illegally tapped by the NSS.