Sat, 24 Oct 2020

An Armenian court late on September 25 put the leader of the country's main opposition party in two months of pretrial detention as part of a vote-buying case he calls politically motivated.

Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman and leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), has been accused of electoral bribery during the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Tsarukian, who didn't attend the court hearing and waited for his arrest outside National Security Service (NSS) building, condemned the detention order as politically motivated.

His lawyers said they would appeal what they described as an "illegal" and "unfounded" ruling ordered by the government.

The oligarch was taken into custody just over three months after the parliament dominated by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's allies stripped him of his parliamentary immunity and allowed prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation against him.

Pashinian, a reformist pressing an anti-corruption campaign, came to power in 2018 in the wake of mass popular protests.

The NSS claims Tsarukian "created and led an organized group" that bought more than 17,000 votes for BHK during parliamentary elections held in 2017.

The electoral fraud probe has led to the indictment of 14 individuals, among them two former BHK parliamentarians, and the questioning 162 other people.

Tsarukian and his party maintain that Pashinian ordered the criminal proceedings in response to the BHK leader's calls for the government's resignation. Pashinian denies that the case is politically motivated.

In June, a Yerevan court refused to allow Tsarukian's pretrial arrest. But that decision was overturned weeks later in July by Armenia's Court of Appeals, which ordered a lower court to hold another hearing.

Tsarukian's allies have linked the government's continued attempts to arrest him to an anti-government rally which will be held by the BHK and two other opposition parties in Yerevan on October 8.

Defense lawyers claimed prosecutors kept pushing for Tsarukian's arrest despite producing no proof that their client has pressured witnesses or obstructed the NSS investigation over the past three months.

Representatives of the BHK, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), and the Hayrenik party said this week that the planned rally will go ahead even if Tsarukian were taken into custody. They said they will demand the holding of snap parliamentary elections.

The BHK was part of Pashinian's first cabinet formed following anti-government protests that led to the peaceful fall of longtime President Serzh Sarkisian in April 2018.

Pashinian fired BHK-affiliated ministers in October 2018, accusing Tsarukian of secretly collaborating with the country's former leadership.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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