Police in southern Armenia appear to have again rounded up and interrogated scores of people in an attempt to hunt down a local businessman who went into hiding earlier this year after falling out with controversial parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian.
The mass detentions of relatives of Hovannes Ghazarian reported in recent days have underlined the status of the town of Artashat and surrounding villages as a de facto fiefdom of Abrahamian and his extended family.
Abrahamian and Ghazarian, who managed the Artashat branch of Armenia’s national gas distribution company until last spring, are said to have been on good terms until a local election in the village of Mrgavan in which they backed rival candidates. Bad blood between them flared up into a violent confrontation in April reportedly involving Abrahamian’s son and nephew.
The two young men allegedly unleashed a hail of automatic gunfire at Ghazarian’s house after a drunken assault on a taxi firm belonging to him. Abrahamian subsequently insisted that his son had no part in the violence but did not deny his nephew’s involvement.
The bitter feud continued unabated, with Ghazarian and his supporters reportedly brawling with a group of other men, including Abrahamian’s son, nephew and bodyguards, in Artashat the next month. The speaker, who is a leading figure in President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), denied his and his relatives’ involvement in the clash.
The police held Ghazarian responsible for the violence, searching his Mrgavan house and briefly detaining more than a dozen of his relatives at the time. The businessmen, his driver and several other associates have been on the run since then.
Members of the Ghazarian family said that the police began on Tuesday again rounding up local residents and bullying them to disclose the fugitive men’s whereabouts. “They’ve been taking people away all day long,” Ghazarian’s wife, Paytsar Nersisian, told RFE/RL. “Just today they took away my husband’s sister and her husband, my brother-in-law’s mother and father.”
“Yesterday they took away the 78-year-old grandfather of my daughter-in-law,” she said. “They didn’t produce a single warrant or drew up an [interrogation] report, saying that they have right to enter any house at any time.”
Esfira Virabian, a Ghazarian family in-law, said she would not help the police track down the fugitives even if she knew where they are hiding. “Why don’t the police try to investigate the other side as well?” she explained. “It’s them who shot at us.”
“They [the fugitives] know that the case will end in a one-sided solution,” said Virabian. “That’s why they won’t come out.”
Earlier this week, the police set up a roadblock near a local liquefied gas station owned by Ghazarian, checking all cars and allegedly preventing them from to buying fuel there. A taxi carrying an RFE/RL reporter and cameraman was stopped there on Thursday.
“This is a gas station of a fugitive criminal,” one of the officers at the scene told the journalists. “We have information that he might come over here.”
Another policeman protested against being filmed and recorded. “Keep that microphone away,” he said menacingly. “I’m warning you for the last time.”
“They won’t let anyone through, and so we can’t work anymore,” claimed one gas station worker.
“I’m surprised that they let you guys through,” said another. “There are 12 people working here. How are their families going to get by?”
The policemen denied obstructing the facility’s work. “If you want to fill up the tank, go ahead,” one plainclothes officer told RFE/RL.
The taxi service owned by Ghazarian also alleged harassment at the hands of law-enforcement bodies. “It’s been three days since they started banning our cars from entering our filling station and insulting and threatening our drivers,” its manager, Nelli Markarian, told RFE/RL. “What can I say? It’s anarchy.”
The Artashat police could not be reached for comment. The chief of the national police, Alik Sargsian, previously served as governor of the Ararat province, of which Artashat is the capital. Sargsian is reputed to be a protégé of Abrahamian.
President Sarkisian’s unexpected decision to appoint him as police chief in June 2008 reflected the speaker’s increased political clout in Yerevan. Abrahamian managed Sarkisian’s and the HHK’s campaigns in the last presidential and parliamentary elections in his then capacity as deputy prime minister.
Located about 30 kilometer south of Yerevan, Artashat was the scene of the worst pre-election violence during the 2008 presidential race. A group of local youths hurled stones at opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian and beat up one of his bodyguards when he rallied supporters there in February 2008. Ter-Petrosian accused Abrahamian of orchestrating the violence, a charge the latter strongly denied.