By Ruzanna Stepanian
Three men were shot dead in a cemetery in Yerevan at the weekend, becoming the latest victims of an apparent bloody vendetta between two wealthy families related to each other.
Police said in a brief statement that the 33-year-old Artavazd Vartanian was gunned down along with his brother-in-law and driver as he laid flowers at the grave of his assassinated father Ashot late on Saturday. No details were reported.
Gagik Shamshian, a freelance photojournalist, visited the cemetery located in the city’s western Silikian suburb shortly after the shootings and saw two corpses carried away by law-enforcement officers from the scene. Shamshian took pictures of Ashot Vartanian’s grave stained with his son’s blood.
Both the Armenian police and prosecutors told RFE/RL on Monday that nobody has been arrested in connection with the killings so far. They said they have not yet identified any suspects either.
Ashot Vartanian, who owned a pastry company and a restaurant, was fatally shot in downtown Yerevan in broad daylight March 2006. The police eventually identified a man who they say murdered the 53-year-old businessman, but failed to arrest and prosecute him. They claim to be still hunting for him.
According to various newspaper reports citing unnamed law-enforcement sources, the 2006 killing stemmed from a bitter business dispute between Vartanian and his cousin Gagik Vartanian. One of Gagik’s friends had been killed in 2005, and he is said to have felt that the crime was the work of Ashot.
The alleged dispute took a new twist on May 9 when Gagik’s son Stepan was shot dead outside a Yerevan restaurant. The Armenian daily “Aravot” reported later in May that investigators believe the murderers were linked with Ashot’s two sons.
Incidentally, the owner of the restaurant in question, Levon Gulian, died in police custody on May 12 in still unclear circumstances after three days of interrogations. Gulian’s family says the 31-year-old was brutally tortured by his interrogators, while the police claim that he fell to his death while attempting to escape from the police building.
The latest shooting spree will raise more questions about the ongoing criminal investigations into the previous killings apparently connected with it and, in particular, the law-enforcement authorities’ failure to arrest anyone. Armenia’s security apparatus is already under fire over an upsurge in high-profile contract murders reported over the past year. Their victims included Shahen Hovasapian, a senior tax official, Sedrak Zatikian, a senior member of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and at least two reputed crime figures.
The law-enforcement authorities announced last week the arrest of a man who they described as the main participant of a drive-by shooting that left Zatikian and an innocent passerby dead in June last year. They also reportedly raided the Yerevan home of two nephews of Hakob Hakobian, a parliament deputy affiliated with the governing Republican Party, as part of the inquiry. The two young men are suspected of masterminding Zatikian’s murder and are currently on the run.
Many in Armenia feel that such crimes, most of them still not solved, result from a sense of impunity reigning among wealthy government-connected individuals and their families. Many of them possess weapons, including assault rifles, and have armed bodyguards.
Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri was rocked last May by a daylight shootout between two groups of young men reportedly led by sons of Gyumri Mayor Vartan Ghukasian and a prominent local businessman. They both were charged with involvement in the gunfight but remain at large, with police claiming to be unaware of their whereabouts.
(Photo courtesy of Gagik Shamshian.)