Wed, 02 Dec 2020

Armenia's Main Opposition Leader Freed On Bail

23 Oct 2020, 16:15 GMT+10

Armenia's main opposition party leader has been released on bail nearly a month after his detention in 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.

He was released from detention on October 22 on a bail of 100 million drams ($206,000).

Calls for the release of the head of Armenia's largest parliamentary opposition force grew after the outbreak of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27.

BHK figures and other opposition politicians said his release would strengthen national unity in the face of what Armenia views as an existential threat against Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory located inside Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians.

The oligarch was taken into custody on September 25, 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 National Security Service (HAATs) 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 parliament deputies, and the questioning of more than 160 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.

A judge at that lower court sanctioned Tsarukian's pretrial arrest on September 25. The same judge agreed to grant him bail.

Defense lawyers claim prosecutors have pushed for Tsarukian's arrest despite producing no proof that their client has pressured witnesses or obstructed the HAATs investigation.

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.

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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