By Astghik BedevianThe Armenian government and police have voiced their opposition to draft legislation that would legalize and at the same time curb activities of the notoriously roguish bodyguards of wealthy government-connected businessmen.
Under Armenian law, a special police department has the exclusive authority to provide armed protection to various institutions and private individuals. But this has not prevented many local tycoons from maintaining private security services usually made up of burly young men with short haircuts.
Dubbed “skinheads” by the media, they are regularly accused of bullying ordinary citizens and settling scores with each other by violent means. Dozens of them were reportedly involved in a massive gunfight in a Yerevan suburb one year ago that left at least one person dead and several others wounded. The unprecedented shootout prompted calls for the Armenian authorities to last rein in the bodyguards and their patrons.
The outcry led two pro-government factions in parliament representing the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and Orinats Yerkir parties to draft a bill that would make it legal for citizens to have licensed armed guards but would strictly regulate the latter’s conduct. The bill stipulates in particular that bodyguards can open fire or use force only if the life of their clients is in serious jeopardy.
“This bill is meant to curb the existing illegal activities and make them controllable,” one of its authors, Dashnaktsutyun lawmaker Hrair Karapetian, told parliament hearings on the issue on Thursday. “The absence of such legislation makes it easy for people to form armed groups and influence the political situation.”
“The so-called bodyguards are widely associated with semi-criminal activities, settling of scores and violence against ordinary citizens,” said Mher Shahgeldian, an Orinats Yerkir leader who heads the Armenian parliament’s committee on defense and security.
According to opposition deputy Victor Dallakian, for most Armenians being a bodyguard is tantamount to having “shaven heads, dumb looks, phenomenal stupidity and sadistic tendencies.” “They enjoy absolute impunity and are used for political purposes such as suppression of rallies,” he said, accusing the authorities of using the “skinheads” against their political opponents.
Dallakian was among several prominent government critics who were attacked and beaten up during the Armenian opposition’s campaign for regime change about two years ago. Their description of the attackers fitted the appearance of some two dozen well-built men who attempted to disrupt an April 2004 opposition rally in Yerevan. Police stood by and looked on as the thugs smashed the cameras of reporters covering the protest.
The Armenian government, meanwhile, is opposed to the bill. “The government finds it difficult to determine which body must decide whether a person has enough skills and intelligence [to be a licensed bodyguard],” Deputy Justice Minister Gevorg Malkhasian told parliamentarians.
Ararat Mahtesian, the deputy chief of the national Police Service also present at the hearings, agreed, saying that armed protection of legal entities and individuals must remain the police prerogative. “If a businessman has men in his entourage whom he very much trusts, the police can consider employing them,” he argued. “If they meet our requirements, we can admit them into police ranks so that they can perform their duties with police epaulettes.”
Mahtesian added that 36 local entrepreneurs already have bodyguards affiliated with the police and pay a legally defined fee for the service. According to another senior police officer, among them is Gagik Tsarukian, arguably the wealthiest of the Armenian tycoons.
However, neither Tsarukian nor other government-linked “oligarchs” are believed to content themselves with police protection, judging by the large number of beefy men constantly surrounding them. Security sources say they are typically paid between $400 and $500 a month and are officially listed as “aides” to their influential bosses.
(Photolur photo: Mahtesian, left, and other police officers attending the parliament hearings.)