To Maim And Kill With Impunity


January 27, 2012

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.

Suren Khachatryan 2 To Maim and Kill with Impunity

Syunik Governor Suren Khachatryan

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” 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

“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 Charge 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

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.

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