President Serzh Sarkisian ordered the Armenian police on Thursday to put an end to periodical high-profile shootouts involving his loyalists and, in particular, close relatives of senior government officials.
“Today our public is legitimately concerned about the reality that from time to time we witness gunfire, that large quantities of weapons and ammuntion continue to be illegally possessed by our citizens,” he told the leadership of the national police. “The legitimate demand of our citizens is that such phenomena in the country and the capital be resolutely reined in.”
The remarks followed a fresh series of embarrassing incidents that highlighted the lingering problems with the rule of law in Armenia. In one such incident, two groups of men exchanged fire in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district on April 1. One man was killed and at least another wounded in the shootout.
Both the victim and the man who confessed to murdering him were on the list of candidates fielded by Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) for the May 31 municipal elections in Yerevan. The police have so far shed little light on the possible causes of the deadly dispute.
Reports in the Armenian press have also implicated a son and a nephew of parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian in the April 4 rampage reported in Artashat, a town 30 kilometers south of Yerevan. The two young men allegedly unleashed a hail of automatic gunfire at the house of a local businessman after a drunken assault on a taxi firm belonging to him. Two of its cars were set on fire and destroyed as a result.
Abrahamian, who is a senior member of the HHK and a figure close to Sarkisian, subsequently insisted that his son had no part in the violence but did not deny his nephew’s involvement. The police claimed to have arrested five men in connection with the incident but did not identify any of them.
Artashat and surrounding villaged have for years been considered the de facto fiefdom of Abrahamian and his extended family. The area is also notorious for politically motivated violence against opposition politicians and activists. The most serious instance of violence reported during campaigning for Armenia’s last presidential election occurred there. Abrahamian, who managed Sarkisian’s election campaign at the time, denied opposition allegations that he was behind it.
Sarkisian expressed serious concern at the latest shootings and pledged to “drastically toughen our reaction to such incidents” during his April 10 news conference. “If a son or a relative of an official is involved in a crime, we will take strict measures,” the president said, adding that he has given a relevant order to the police.
Sarkisian repeated the order in a speech dedicated to Police Day, a professional holiday marked by the law-enforcement body on Thursday. “We are obliged to achieve serious results,” he said after giving medals to several senior policemen.
Sarkisian’s own relatives and, in particular, his controversial brother Aleksandr have for years been accused by opposition media and politicians of unruly behavior. As recently as on Tuesday the opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” published a front-page photograph of an expensive car owned by Aleksandr Sarkisian’s son Narek and parked outside a police station in central Yerevan.
The paper claimed that the young man went there to secure the release of a friend detained for a serious traffic rule violation. The latter was set free shortly afterwards, it said.
President Sarkisian already pledged to root out impunity enjoyed by government-connected wealthy inviduals after one of them was implicated in a September attack on a Yerevan café that left one person dead. He was beaten to death by a group of well-built men after they apparently mistook him for one of the café owners who held a senior position in Armenia’s state television and radio at the time.
The well-known journalist, Artur Sahakian, claimed that the attackers were sent by Levon Sargsian, an HHK businessman and parliament deputy with a history of violent conduct, to settle scores with him. Sahakian alleged a high-level police cover-up of the assault before emigrating to the United States with his family later in 2008.
Meanwhile, the chief of the Armenian police, Major-General Alik Sargsian, defended the police record and heard praise from the heads of other law-enforcement bodies at a celebratory event later on Thursday. “Any manifestation of illegality is punished. Our work is transparent and solely aimed at protecting the public’s interests,” he said in a speech before hundreds of police officials.
One of Sargsian’s deputies, Nerses Nazarian, was optimistic that the “divide” between the police and ordinary Armenians will disappear “soon.” “Today is a holiday,” Nazarian told RFE/RL. “So let’s not talk about our shortcomings”