Ex-Governor Regains Job Lost After Murder
The Armenian governor reappointed a man notorious for violent conduct as governor of the southeastern Syunik province on Thursday more than one year after he was forced to resign following a high-profile murder committed outside his private residence.
Suren Khachatrian’s appointment was formally proposed by Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and approved by his cabinet at its weekly session in Yerevan. “Mr. Khachatrian, we congratulate and wish you productive work,” said Abrahamian. He gave no reasons for the move which was almost certainly sanctioned by President Serzh Sarkisian.
Justice Minister Hovannes Manukian categorically refused to comment on Khachatrian’s reappointment at a news briefing held after the cabinet meeting. Manukian urged reporters to change the subject and stormed out after they kept pressing him.
The development, anticipated by some media outlets in recent weeks, inevitably cast a renewed spotlight on the June 2013 fatal shooting of a 43-year-old businessman, Avetik Budaghian, outside Khachatrian’s villa in Goris, a town in Syunik. Budaghian and his brother Artak, an army colonel, clashed with Khachatrian’s sons and bodyguards just hours after taking part in a dinner hosted by the Syunik governor for several local dignitaries. Artak Budaghian was seriously wounded in the shootout.
Khachatrian’s 20-year-old son Tigran and one of his bodyguards were subsequently arrested and charged with murder and illegal arms possession. The governor, for his part, was sacked by the government amid an outcry from the victim’s family.
The two men were released from custody and cleared of any wrongdoing in September 2013. Law-enforcement authorities claimed that the gunshots fired by them constituted legitimate self-defense as the Budaghian brothers mounted an “armed assault” on Khachatrian’s residence.
The Budaghian family strongly disputes those claims, saying that shortly before the shootout Suren Khachatrian assaulted Avetik Budaghian in his car in an attempt to force the latter to share his business revenues with the governor’s clan. The family’s lawyers have suggested that Khachatrian may have also fired at the brothers during the armed clash.
Khachatrian, who has a long history of violence, has insisted all along that he slept in his house as the two groups of armed men exchanged gunfire at its doorstep.
The newly reappointed Syunik governor again denied any direct involvement in the Goris businessman’s death as he emerged from the main government building in Yerevan on Thursday. “Did you kill Avetik Budaghian?” one of the journalists asked. “Are you mentally sick, man?” retorted Khachatrian.
Not surprisingly, the government’s decision to reinstate Khachatrian prompted outrage from the victim’s family, opposition politicians, and civic activists. “Anything can now be expected in this country,” Avetik’s father, Emil Budaghian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“This is a demonstration of sadistic attitude towards the people of Armenia and Syunik in particular,” said Samvel Harutiunian, a former Goris mayor and longtime Khachatrian rival.
“This proves that the head of the ruling regime as well as the man occupying the post of prime minister, Hovik Abrahamian, do not want to be different from Surik Khachatrian and are even doing everything to resemble him,” charged Harutiunian.
Khachatrian, better known to the public as “Liska,” has held sway in Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media have long implicated him and his relatives in violent attacks on local business rivals as well as government critics, including a Syunik newspaper editor whose car was set on fire in 2005. The controversial governor has always denied involvement in such incidents and denounced opposition politicians and pro-opposition media for branding him a crime figure.
Khachatrian, who is a senior member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), risked dismissal in 2008 as he faced an embarrassing government inquiry into a newspaper report that accused him of beating up a teenage boy. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Khachatrian, who was appointed as Syunik governor in 2004 by then President Robert Kocharian, managed to retain his position even after assaulting in a Yerevan hotel lobby in late 2011 a businesswoman who accused him of fraud. Although the incident was captured by a surveillance camera, law-enforcement bodies refused to bring criminal charges against him on the grounds that the woman did not suffer serious physical injuries.
Official results of Armenian elections held over the past decade have shown President Sarkisian and his HHK winning more votes in Syunik than in any other part of the country. Critics say this explains why Khachatrian retained his job for so long.
Neither the HHK nor the presidential administration reacted last year to Khachatrian’s threats to “smash the head” of Raffi Hovannisian, Sarkisian’s main challenger in the February 2013 presidential election. The Armenian president, who repeatedly pledged to uphold justice during the presidential race, instead gave a major state award, the Order of Combat Cross, to the governor in May 2013.
Syunik Governor Quits Over Shootings
Karlen Aslanian, Astghik Bedevian եւ Ruzanna Stepanian
Suren Khachatrian, the controversial governor of Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province, officially stepped down on Thursday amid the continuing fallout from a deadly shootout that occurred near his house on June 1.
Khachatrian tendered his resignation ahead of a weekly meeting of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s government held in the morning. The cabinet swiftly accepted it.
“Any questions?” Sarkisian asked ministers. “None. The decision is adopted.”
Neither the premier nor Deputy Minister for Local Government Vache Terterian, who submitted the resignation letter, commented on the reasons for the long-serving governor’s move.
But Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said the resignation was the result of the HHK’s “political evaluation” of the bloody incident. “The fact that the government accepted the resignation means the political majority and the authorities believe that the reasons for dismissal contained in that letter are objective,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Khachatrian announced earlier that he is resigning only “until the end of the investigation.” Armenia’s constitution and laws do not allow temporary resignations of state officials.
The issue was not on the agenda of the cabinet meeting publicized beforehand, suggesting that Khachatrian was forced to make the decision at the last minute, amid continuing media allegations that he had a hand in the killing of Avetik Budaghyan, a Syunik businessman who had an uneasy rapport with the notoriously violent governor.
Budaghian was shot dead just outside Khachatrian’s villa in the provincial town of Goris in still unclear circumstances. His brother Artak Budaghian and one of the governor’s bodyguards were seriously wounded in the incident. One of Khachatrian’s sons and another bodyguard are now under arrest, charged with murder and illegal arms possession.
Khachatrian insists that he slept in his bedroom during the incident and had no part in the shootings. Law-enforcement authorities investigating the killing have essentially backed this claim.
Many Armenians critical of the government think otherwise, however, pointing to Khachatrian’s long history of violent conduct. Dozens of civic and opposition activists demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office in Yerevan during Thursday’s cabinet meeting. They demanded that the authorities prosecute Khachatrian as well to end what they see an atmosphere of impunity enjoyed by influential government allies.
“Even if he didn’t do that personally, his sons and security guards did that with his permission,” one of the activists, Davit Sanasarian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He is the one who created that atmosphere.”
In a move clearly initiated by Khachatrian, unnamed employees of Syunik’s provincial administration issued a statement in support of their boss late on Wednesday. They said video of the incident captured by security cameras and purportedly watched by them proves that the governor was not involved in the shootings.
The footage was confiscated by the police hours after the incident, raising questions how and when the Syunik officials gained access to it. Besides, Armenian law forbids any unauthorized publication of materials of a pending criminal case.
Gevorg Kostanian, Armenia’s chief military prosecutor overseeing the ongoing inquiry, criticized the Syunik administration statement but said it did not violate the law because the video could have theoretically been watched by other individuals before its confiscation. “Therefore we cannot regard that as a disclosure of evidence or other data obtained during the investigation,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Nevertheless, I consider unacceptable and incorrect the publication by a state body of information not related to its responsibilities,” added Kostanian.