Armen Keshishian

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Jailed Mayor Of Armenian Town Reelected

By Shakeh Avoyan

The mayor of a small town near Yerevan who was arrested late last month after reportedly shooting dead a local rival has been reelected for another three-year term, election officials said on Monday.

Official results of Sunday's election showed Armen Keshishian winning nearly 50 percent of the vote, against 41.5 percent polled by his sole challenger for the post of Nor Hajn mayor. It is the first time that a jailed person wins an election in post-Soviet Armenia.

`It can be said the election in Nor Hajn was the most peaceful in the entire district,' the chairman of the district election commission, Gnel Ghalumian, told RFE/RL. `I feared something bad might happened, but everything was alright.' He said the commission has not received any written complaints from the defeated candidate.

Keshishian has been under police custody since a September 24 bitter argument with the head of the local power distribution network, Ashot Mkhitarian, which resulted in the latter's death. Witnesses, among them two police officers, said the incumbent mayor fired several gunshots at Mkhitarian from an almost point-bank range.

The killing took place in broad daylight at the site of what law-enforcement authorities call `illegal construction' financed by the victim. Keshishian was reportedly furious with his failure to obtain permission for the construction. Keshishian is now facing a lengthy prison sentence, charged with a `premeditated murder committed in a way that endangered many peoples' lives.'

The two men are said to have fallen out last year, leading Mkhitarian to back the mayor's election challenger who heads the local branch of the Yerkrapah Union of the Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans. The dead man was reputed to be a protégé of Armenian `oligarch' Gagik Tsarukian, while Keshishian was until now close to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party.

The outcome of the Nor Hajn election may have given Keshishian a huge moral boost, but it is unlikely to prevent his trial and almost certain imprisonment. Under Armenian law, criminal suspects can contest any election before being found guilty by court. And unlike parliament deputies, heads of local government do not enjoy immunity from prosecution.

`I have no idea how he is to govern the town until the court verdict,' said Ghalumian.

It has emerged that the handgun used in the Nor Hajn shooting had been presented to Keshishian by Markarian. Newspaper reports have said Markarian's gift pistols have also been used in other crimes. The embarrassed prime minister assured journalists last week that the Armenian police will now screen prospective recipients of such presents `more strictly.'

Sunday also saw local elections in 12 other towns and some 270 villages across Armenia. The polls were effectively boycotted by the opposition.