By Karine Kalantarian
An elderly woman and her three grandsons were reportedly in a serious condition on Thursday after setting themselves on fire in protest against what they see as a government cover-up of the recent killing of a family member.
Eyewitnesses said Gyulizar Avdalian, 68, and the three teenage boys tried to burn themselves during a demonstration outside President Robert Kocharian’s official residence that was staged by over three dozen residents of their village of Zovuni in northeastern Armenia. The protesters, most of them Yezidi Kurds, demanded a fresh criminal investigation into the violent death of Avdalian’s son Kyaram.
The 42-year-old farmer was beaten to death on November 6 in still uncertain circumstances. His relatives say he was attacked by several men led by the ethnic Armenian mayor of the neighboring village of Lchashen, who is said to have been locked in a bitter land dispute with the Avdalian family.
However, law-enforcement authorities arrested and prosecuted another man who the angry protesters say had nothing to do with the crime. Two members of the extended Avdalian family were received by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian following the attempted self-immolation. A spokeswoman for Hovsepian said he promised to order prosecutors in Yerevan to take over the inquiry.
Still, the Office of the Prosecutor-General stood by the official theory of the crime in a statement released later in the day. It said the dispute broke out after Kyaram Avdalian grazed cattle on a land belonging to a Lchashen family.
The dead man’s mother and children were hospitalized immediately after the desperate action. “I’ve just visited them. Their condition is critical,” the leader of Armenia’s Yezidi community, Aziz Tamoyan, told RFE/RL.
Tamoyan, who had earlier appealed to Kocharian and Hovsepian in connection with the case, backed the family’s demands and warned that failure to punish the “real perpetrators” of the crime would further escalate the situation in Zovuni. He also said that the alleged cover-up the result of government corruption and ethnic discrimination.
The Yezidis are Armenia’s largest ethnic minority, numbering between 30,000 and 50,000, most of them rural residents. There have been Yezidi protests in Yerevan in the past against alleged land grabs carried out by local government officials and wealthy farmers connected with the latter.
“In general our relations with the Armenian people have always been good,” said Tamoyan. “We consider Armenia to be our homeland. But there have always been some cases [of discrimination.]”
“People just don’t want to keep quiet anymore,” he added. “That is why four of them burned themselves.”