An Armenian army officer was arrested early on Sunday after reportedly threatening to blow up an expensive restaurant in Yerevan where one of his colleagues was beaten to death by security guards working for an influential government-linked businessman.
The arrest came just hours after hundreds of people held a candlelight vigil there for Major Vahe Avetian, a 35-year-old military doctor who died on Friday of severe wounds sustained in the June 17 assault. Two other army medics were also injured in the incident in still unclear circumstances.
News reports said that Lieutenant-Colonel Vartan Samvelian, a deputy commander of an Armenian army regiment stationed in Yerevan, burst into the Hrasnakar restaurant and threatened to set off an explosive device in his bag in the early hours of Sunday.
Gagik Shamshian, a photojournalist who followed ensuing developments at the scene, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that Samvel surrendered to the police after almost three hours of negotiations with senior law-enforcement officers. Citing police sources, Shamshian said the police found two hand grenades and a large amount of explosive materials in the bag.
Armenia - A "Criminal oligarch' graffiti sprayed on the Harsakar restaurant in Yerevan, 30Jun2012.
The Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situation announced the discovery of these explosives in a short statement. But it gave no details.
Samvelian’s arrest was essentially confirmed by the Armenian Defense Ministry’s Investigative Service. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), the department spokeswoman, Mary Sargsian, also confirmed reports that military investigators will handle the criminal inquiry into the incident.
The Armenian police, for their part, did not immediately issue any statements on the dramatic development.
It was not immediately clear if Samvelian knew the deceased doctor personally. According to Shamshian, the 39-year-old lieutenant-colonel’s father and brother are police officers.
The Harsnakar violence has caused public outrage, with many in Armenia blaming it on what they see as impunity enjoyed by “oligarchs” close to the government and their notoriously violent bodyguards. Ruben Hayrapetian, the Harsakar owner, is one such tycoon. He holds a parliament seat and is believed to enjoy President Serzh Sarkisian’s strong backing.
The army officer reportedly threatened a bomb attack less than six hours after hundreds of civic activists and ordinary Armenians gathered outside the restaurant located in the city’s northern Avan suburb to light candles in memory of Avetian. At first, they silently stood on a sidewalk opposite Harsnakar. Some of them held up the doctor’s pictures and placards saying “I am Vahe Avetian” and “You won’t get away with it.”
Armenia - Candles are put in a silent vigil otuside the Harsnakar restaurant in Yerevan, 30Jun2012.
Facing virtually no police resistance, the crowd then moved closer to the two-story restaurant building, putting the candles by its windows and entrances. Many protesters then chanted “Hayrapetian murderer” at the main entrance. Also, restaurant walls were sprayed with graffiti that branded Hayrapetian a “criminal” and urged Armenians to boycott the “slaughterhouse.”
The protest nearly disrupted a wedding party that was in progress on the second floor.
Hayrapetian, who also heads the Armenian Football Federation, condemned the June 17 beatings but denied any responsibility for them last week. He pledged to assist in the ongoing criminal investigation.
Still, the controversial tycoon faced more accusations of complicity after subsequent media reports said that one of the six men arrested and charged in the case worked as his personal bodyguard. The burly man, Garik Markarian, is alleged to have caused Avetian’s fatal head injuries.
Meanwhile, street protests over Avetian’s death continued in Yerevan on Sunday, with several hundred people marching to the presidential palace, the parliament and the Office of the Prosecutor-General.