Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 64

On March 29, a top panel of Karabakh’s supreme court (lower-case supreme court) upheld the February 26 verdicts and sentences of a lower panel of that same court in the trial of the former strongman of Karabakh, Samvel Babaian, and four codefendants. Babaian was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and the others, to terms ranging from seven to fourteen years for their part in the March 22, 2000 assassination attempt on the unrecognized Karabakh republic’s president Arkady Gukasian. The latter was severely wounded in the nighttime shootout.

The trial had begun in a lower-level court in September 2000. Three defendants pleaded guilty–one of them, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Karabakh army, being classified as insane during the trial–while Babaian and one codefendant pleaded innocent throughout. The defense has now exhausted the appeals procedure in Karabakh. It had gone through that procedure while at the same time rejecting the legitimacy of Karabakh’s court system and insisting that the case be tried in Armenia. The defense now plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but faces a serious jurisdictional hurdle in that Karabakh residents would very likely be treated there as citizens of Azerbaijan.

Babaian commanded the Karabakh-Armenian forces in the 1991-94 war against Azerbaijan. He rose to the rank of lieutenant general, was Karabakh’s defense minister until 1999 and enjoyed the status of a national hero in Karabakh and in Armenia proper. Capitalizing on that status, he built an economic mini-empire for himself, his family and his military cohorts in Karabakh. In 1998-99, Babaian made a bid for the top leadership post in the unrecognized republic. He sponsored a political movement and had personal supporters up to Colonels’ ranks in the Karabakh army and police. Babaian’s brother Karen held, successively, the key posts of internal affairs minister of Karabakh and mayor of Stepanakert. In 1999, Samvel Babaian became an important political player also in Yerevan. There, he sponsored the nationalist Right and Accord bloc in the 1999 elections and in the Armenian parliament elected that year. During the trial, his Yerevan supporters campaigned to exonerate Babaian of the charges against him.

Babaian’s bid for Karabakh’s presidency was ultimately thwarted by Armenia’s strongman Vazgen Sarkisian, shortly before the latter’s assassination in Yerevan in October 1999. Sarkisian threw his support to Gukasian, organized a purge of Babaian’s military supporters in Karabakh, and made it possible for the new prime minister of Karabakh, Anushavan Danielian, to promote the business interests of clans rival to Babaian’s. The latter was ousted in December 1999 from all official posts. In March 2000, Karabakh’s authorities arrested Babaian and his diehard supporters on suspicion of having perpetrated the assault on Gukasian. Meanwhile, Karen–along with the Babaian’s brother-in-law Gergen Nersisian, former deputy mayor of Stepanakert–is also on trial.

Babaian, like the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun, advocated the permanent retention of some occupied areas beyond Karabakh, in Azerbaijan proper, from which the Azeri population had been forced to flee during the war. The removal of Babaian from politics should ease somewhat the putative internal pressures upon President Robert Kocharian regarding the terms of settling the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, March 30-31; see the Monitor, March 24, 29, September 21, 2000).