Preferential Treatment for Armenia’s Oligarchs and their Entourage
In November 2011, Syunik Governor Suren Khachatryan (aka “Liska”) physically attacked businesswoman Silva Hambarzumyan in the lobby of the Marriot Hotel in Yerevan. He was reportedly angered over her accusations that he stole over 100 million drams ($258,000) worth of equipment from her gold mine. The media quickly picked up the story, as the attack happened in a public space, involved two high-profile individuals, and had as eyewitnesses Republican Party MPs Samvel Sargsyan and Khachik Manukyan.
This was not the first time the Syunik governor or other members of the ruling elite were accused of physically attacking citizens. In 2001, an intoxicated Georgian-Armenian was viciously beaten to death in a bathroom stall by then-President Robert Kocharian’s bodyguard, Aghamal Harutiunyan, during a jazz concert in Yerevan’s Poplavok cafe. The victim, Poghos Poghosian, had been imprudent enough to “insult” the president by greeting him with, “Hello, Rob!” (short for Robert). The bodyguard received a mere probation for his crime, as the court rejected the key witness account of British citizen Stephen Newton. Unfortunately, these crimes are not exceptions, and they have not escaped the attention of foreign diplomats.
A set of U.S. Embassy cables originating from the embassy in Yerevan paint a disturbing reality of beatings and murders at the hands of powerful figures or members of their entourage. U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, for instance, wrote of a brawl that took place in a Yerevan discotheque in Octeber 2008 that was allegedly “prompted” by a nephew of President Serge Sarkisian’s. It resulted in serious injuries, and the loss of an eye for one of the men involved.
Unrestrained violence has even permeated state institutions; the cables and various news reports tell of beatings and murders that happen at the hands of the police and army officials, and often go unpunished. Numerous cables chronicle instances of attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens, in addition to media censorship and intimidation.
The May 2007 death of restaurant owner Levon Gulian troubled U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Pennington because the victim perished when he plunged to his death—head first—out of the window of a police station where he was being interrogated. According to his family, Gulian voluntarily went to the police to give his account as a witness to a crime, but ended up dead. A proper investigation has never been carried out, and his injuries are left unexplained. Pennington wrote that the government counsel provided a “fantastic scenario” of how Gulian fell head first, and not on his feet—as he should have if he had willingly jumped down 25 feet. Pennington followed that case closely, sending a number of cables with updates on the investigation.
In May 2008, Pennington cabled another report that described how Governor Khachatryan had allegedly “viciously beat[en]” a teenager who was unlucky enough to have fallen into a skirmish with the governor’s son. After the news spread, the governor’s supervisor, the minister of territorial administration, looked into the affair and found no misconduct.
In April 2011, the governor allegedly beat a 12-year-old boy and broke his jaw. The boy’s family did not report the attack out of fear, wrote Aravot newspaper at the time. Pennington noted that the incident was not a first for Khachatryan or his family. Khachatryan “de facto reigns over Syunik as a feudal lord,” he wrote, adding, “in 2007, the governor’s brother reportedly attempted to rape a girl at broad daylight in a supermarket.”
Soon after, Aravot printed a retraction stating they had wrongly identified another child as the victim, and that the real victim was 16 years old. The newspaper further stated that the family, fearing Khachatryan, did not wish to be identified, and had not taken the boy to a hospital, deciding instead to rely on the expertise of a physician they knew. It also stated that the victim’s house was under surveillance by thugs working for the governor.
According to Pennington, soon after these news reports were published, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsian ordered his deputy prime minister, Armen Gevorkian (who also serves as minister of territorial administration), to look into Aravot’s report. Gevorkian formed a special commission; after first meeting with the misidentified 12-year-old boy and X-raying his jaw, he finally met with the real victim and found there were no outer signs of injuries. Pennington noted that weeks had passed since the incident occurred, and the commission did not X-ray the jaw of the actual victim. Again, the commission found no wrongdoing on the part of the governor. Instead, they found that the teenager had hit the governor’s son, and that Aravot’s reports were flawed.
A month after sending the cable, Pennington authored another one stating that a direct source (identified in the report but protected here for his safety) confirmed the governor’s attack. The teenage victim was the son of one of the Board members of the Goris Teachers’ Union. Apparently, the governor’s son had made advances toward a girl on the street, and the teenager had intervened. The governor reportedly called the teenager to his office, to reprimand him for daring to hit his son. The teenager showed no remorse. Angered, the governor hit him, drawing “excessive” amounts of blood from his nose. Khachatryan then offered the boy a napkin, but the latter pushed it away. Furious, he then “viciously” beat the teenager.
The source also revealed that the governor had forbidden area hospitals from giving aid to the injured teenager. Thus, his family was forced to drive him to a hospital four hours away in Yerevan. According to the source, all the residents of Goris knew of the incident.
“Syunik’s governor has a long-standing, well-deserved reputation as a thug who rules the distant southern province with an iron grip,” wrote Pennington. “The ability of key figures—governors, mayors, generals, oligarchs, as well as their sons, bodyguards, and retainers —to beat up or even kill ordinary citizens with impunity remains both a human rights blot and cause for ongoing public anger at the entrenched elites.”
According to a 2004 U.S. Embassy cable authored by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Armenia Vivian Walker, Khachatryan was appointed governor of Syunik province by Kocharian. Some regarded Khachatryan’s and others’ appointments to key government positions as payoffs for their support in the 2003 elections. In both the 1998 and 2003 presidential elections, Syunik province cast the most votes for Kocharian. Formerly an auto mechanic and a parliamentarian, Khachatryan entered the political scene during the Karabagh War, serving as a commander to military units in Goris. “Some claim that the Khachatryan family considers the province to be their de facto personal fiefdom,” wrote Walker, who added that according to media reports, Khachatryan has been “linked” to “violent incidents” in Goris since 1996. In March 2004, two of the governor’s nephews faced criminal charges for murdering a local man, Walker noted.
Settling scores on the streets of Yerevan
Two years earlier, a set of murders in Armenia prompted then-U.S. Embassy Chargé d´Affaires Anthony Godfrey to send a cable to Washington to express his alarm. “Oligarchs and thugs have taken to settling scores on the street in greater numbers in the last few months, and high-profile assassinations and murder attempts are on the rise in Armenia,” he wrote in a cable dated Oct. 18, 2006.
He mentioned how in June 2006, 26-year-old (31 by other accounts) Sedrak Zatikian, a Yerkrapah (Karabagh War veterans’ political movement) leader, was gunned down in broad daylight while driving his car. The shooting also claimed the life of a bystander. Zatikian was “wealthy, relatively powerful, and notorious,” wrote Godfrey. His notoriety was established in 2004, after he assaulted the nephew of influential parliamentary deputy, Hakob Hakobian (aka “Ledi Hakob”). Zatikian hid from police for months, avoiding prosecution, but later reconciled with the Hakobians. Police arrested one of Hakobian’s nephews in connection with the murder, but only charged him with illegal arms possession.
According to recent news reports, Hakobyan’s 33-year-old nephew, Stepan Hakobyan (wanted since Zatikyan’s murder), was apprehended in December 2011. Two others, Ashot Hakobyan, 43, and Arayik Yeghiazaryan, 40, were also arrested.
Murder in Etchmiadzin
In 2008, Pennington penned his outrage at an incident involving yet another father and son. This time, the son of retired army general and parliamentary member Seyran Saroyan was accused of participating in the murder of Sepuh Karapetian, 23, from Echmiadzin in March of that year. The murder was allegedly ordered by the retired general who was enraged that his son, Zarzand, had received a knife wound during a fight with three young men. The wound was inflicted by Karapetian’s friend, allegedly in self-defense, according to a Hetq interview with an anonymous friend present at the scene. The fight reportedly broke out when the three tried to stop Zarzand’s unwelcome advances towards a young woman. Upon learning about the fight, the general reportedly ordered his son to seek revenge.
According to reports cited by Pennington, Zarzand, a relative (rumored to be the general’s father), and eight of the general’s bodyguards participated in locating the three youth, savagely beating them, and murdering Karapetian. “According to Karapetian’s anonymous friend, when the 23-year-old’s body was found, it showed signs of torture. Karapetian’s shoes and socks had been removed and his feet beaten to a pulp; the deceased’s legs had turned white from repetitive blows; and his hands had been pierced by a sharp implement in the manner of a crucifixion,” wrote Pennington.
In the end, a distant relative of the general, Arayik Saroyan, was charged with premeditated murder, but third-party sources were unable to verify whether the relative had been present at the time of the murder. Pennington noted that according to a Hetq report, Zarzand was also involved in a hit-and-run that left a 10-year-old boy dead and another crippled in 2007.
“This and other similar incidents in recent years reinforce the impression of many ordinary Armenians that there is a class of well-connected individuals and oligarchs here who, along with their families and security details, can rob, kill, and maim with impunity,” wrote Pennington. “We customarily hear reports several times per year of influential generals or oligarchs, or their families or retainers, being involved in violent altercations with average citizens unlucky or imprudent enough to get in their way. Such incidents are routinely swept under the carpet… It is precisely incidents such as these that deepen Armenians’ feelings of helpless rage that there is a class of wealthy and thuggish regime supporters who are effectively free to maim and kill ordinary citizens with impunity.”
Unfortunately, some of the very same individuals whose actions shocked the authors of these cables are still terrorizing the streets of Armenia. Khachatryan made headlines yet again in recent weeks after he allegedly threatened the wellbeing of an environmental activist. An even-handed judiciary must emerge that acts not as the pawn of the rich and powerful, but as an institution that guards the rights of all Armenian citizens. Crimes must be punished, regardless of the depth of the criminals’ pockets or their familial relations.