By Ruzanna Stepanian
Police in Gyumri have found the body of a 12-year-old boy who went missing about two months ago in mysterious circumstances which local residents link with an infamous gunfight in Armenia’s second largest city.
Robert Simonian disappeared on May 20, the day when two groups of young men, reportedly including a son of Gyumri Mayor Vartan Ghukasian, exchanged fire in the city center in broad daylight. The coincidence prompted suggestions that the boy may have been hit by a stray bullet or run over by a car involved in the shootout. Law-enforcement authorities pledged to do everything to find him.
Prosecutors in Yerevan confirmed on Thursday reports that Simonian was found dead in a makeshift house the previous night shortly after the stench of his decomposing body was felt by residents of adjacent home. A family that owns the house left Gyumri seven years ago and it has been empty since then.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Prosecutor-General, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL that the local police and prosecutors believe that he was apparently killed by a hand grenade or another military explosive device. “A [preliminary] examination of the site and the body found numerous traces of splinters from military ammunition on Robert Simonian’s body and the walls, floor and ceiling of the house,” she said. “The precise cause of the death will be determined by a forensic examination.”
Asked whether there might be a connection between the boy’s death and the May 20 shootout, Truzian said, “We will be able to answer this question only after the end of the inquiry, when the cause of the child’s death is ascertained.”
The prosecutors said earlier that the gunfight, which left at least two people wounded, was between two groups of local youths led by Ghukasian’s notorious son Spartak and Rustam Sargsian, son of a prominent local businessman. They were promptly charged under relevant articles of the Armenian Criminal Code. But despite official arrest warrants, both young men and most of their alleged accomplices remain at large, with the investigators claiming to have been unable to track them down so far.
The Gyumri mayor, who narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt in April, claims that he is unaware of his son’s whereabouts. He is a senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
Ghukasian and members of his family, who have extensive business interests in a city still reeling from the catastrophic 1988 earthquake, have repeatedly been linked with violent incidents reported in Gyumri in recent years. The latest high-profile gunshots deepened a widespread sense of insecurity reigning among local people. Many of them feel that the Ghukasian family and other local business clans enjoy impunity thanks to their wealthy and government connections.
The abandoned shelter where Simonian’s body was found is not far from another makeshift house where the dead boy lived with his parents. The police claimed to have combed the entire Gyumri slum with sniffer dogs in the days that followed his disappearance. It is not clear why they failed to detect the corpse and why neighbors did not smell its foul odor earlier.
Also, a grenade explosion would have presumably been heard by the neighbors. But none of them is known to have reported any blasts in recent weeks. “I don’t know what to say,” one woman reluctantly told RFE/RL by phone. “We just felt a bad smell and saw many flies.”
“A single shot can be heard all over the city,” said another woman, who lives in a nearby Gyumri district. “How come nobody heard any explosions?”