Graft trial begins for Armenia's ousted president
Former Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian on Tuesday went on trial charged with corruption in a case supporters claim is politically-motivated, nearly two years after his ouster in a popular uprising.
Sarkisian -- who dominated Armenia in two consecutive terms as president from 2008 -- resigned in 2018 when his plan to stay in power by taking the post of prime minister sparked mass protests led by Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist who then became premier.
Sarkisian, clad in a navy suit, thanked dozens of supporters who braved cold temperatures and sleet outside the Yerevan district court to support him.
"I hope that in Armenia there are still judges for whom justice is above everything," said Armenia's third post-Soviet president as he headed into the courthouse.
Supporters chanted "president! president!" as the trial got underway.
"The entire case has been fabricated in order to keep Serzh Sarkisian away from active politics," his lawyer Amram Makinyan told AFP.
Tuesday's hearing was largely procedural and it may take weeks or even months for the court to start its formal work on the case.
Sarkisian initially adopted a low profile in the months after his resignation. But over the last year he has reemerged and harshly criticised Pashinyan.
The 65-year-old former military officer was charged in December with organising an embezzlement scheme that allegedly helped enrich government officials.
He was banned from leaving the country and if convicted could face up to eight years in jail.
Prosecutors have said that in 2013 Sarkisian helped to organise a scheme for a private company to supply diesel fuel for the government's agricultural assistance programme at a deliberately inflated price.
The surplus of 489 million drams ($1 million) was then pocketed by the officials and businessmen involved in the scheme, prosecutors have said.
There is no direct indication in the indictment over whether Sarkisian had personally benefited from the plot.
- 'Farcical trial' -
In a statement Tuesday, Sarkisian's Republican Party decried the "politically motivated process" and "biased targeting of Serzh Sarkisian by the state propaganda machine."
Margarita Esayan, one of those protesting outside the court and a former Republican Party MP, said: "The trial is farcical. Armenia's third president is being persecuted and denigrated on Pashinyan's orders."
The peaceful uprising against Sarkisian's rule erupted in April 2018 when he tried to remain at the helm by switching to the newly-empowered role of prime minister after his second and last term as president expired.
The move -- widely seen as a power grab -- proved the last straw for the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million people, long frustrated with the ex-Soviet country's sluggish economy, poverty and corruption.
The uprising was compared to revolutions that ousted autocratic leaders seen over the last years in other ex-Soviet nations such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Pashinyan was then elected prime minister and has since led a relentless crusade against government graft.
- Careful path -
Sarkisian was regarded by analysts as a shrewd strategist who charted a careful path between the West and Soviet-era master Russia while also maintaining cordial ties with Armenia's southern neighbour Iran.
He initially supported efforts to sign an association agreement with the European Union but in 2013, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, refused to sign the pact and opted to join instead the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
In 2008, he made an attempt to forge ties with Turkey, with whom Yerevan is at odds over the World War I mass killings of Armenians by their Ottoman rules, which Yerevan and many Western legislatures term genocide.
Despite initial hopes of a breakthrough, the efforts came to nothing.
He is not the only former Armenian leader being prosecuted -- his predecessor Robert Kocharyan went on trial in May on charges of "overthrowing the constitutional order" for allegedly tipping 2008 presidential polls in favour of Sarkisian.
Kocharyan denounced the charges against him as politically motivated.
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