Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) on Monday pressed charges against four men arrested late last week in connection with what it considers an attempt to assassinate a controversial regional governor.
One of the arrested men, the alleged mastermind of the May 20 shootings, strongly denied the accusations through his lawyer.
In a statement, the NSS said forensic tests have concluded that a car carrying Suren Khachatrian, the governor of the southeastern Syunik province, came under fire from an AK-74 rifle that found in a village house belonging to one of the suspects, Henrik Avagian. Two other suspects allegedly assisted him.
The statement claimed that the failed contract killing was masterminded by Ara Budaghian, the fourth suspect whose brothers were involved in an infamous shootout outside Khachatrian’s house two years ago. One of them, Avetik Budaghian, was shot dead, while the other, Artak, gravely wounded in that incident.
A notoriously violent son and a bodyguard of Khachatrian confessed to opening fire on the Budaghian brothers. But they avoided prosecution, with law-enforcement authorities saying that the gunshots fired by them constituted legitimate self-defense.
An Armenian court swiftly remanded the four suspects in pre-trial custody. Ara Budaghian’s lawyer, Hayk Alumian, was due to appeal against the “illegal” verdict on Monday.
Alumian claimed that the NSS investigators presented the court with no evidence in support of the accusations levelled against his client. “They have produced a 70-page document that has nothing to do with my client,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The NSS said its officers dealing with the case are now taking “all necessary measures to clarify circumstances that could both substantiate the suspects’ guilt and disprove it.” It said nothing about Budaghian’s alleged motives.
Some Armenian human rights activists, who have long highlighted grave abuses attributed to Khachatrian and his relatives, questioned the credibility of the NSS accusations. One of them, Zhanna Aleksanian, said the criminal case shows that President Serzh Sarkisian continues to guarantee impunity for the governor’s clan.
“Nobody needs ‘Liska’ except Serzh Sarkisian,” Aleksanian said, using Khachatrian’s commonly known nickname.
“One brother was killed, another seriously wounded and the third one is now under arrest,” she said. “This is shameful.”