An Armenian businesswoman claimed on Tuesday to have been assaulted by a regional governor notorious for reportedly violent conduct just days after accusing him of corruption and business-related fraud.
Silva Hambardzumian alleged that Surik Khachatrian of the southeastern Syunik province punched her in the head in a Yerevan hotel late on Monday, lodging a formal complaint with state prosecutors. Khachatrian denied that.
The prosecutors’ investigating arm, the Special Investigative Service (SIS), opened a criminal case on the allegations on Tuesday evening. The SIS did that after questioning Hambardzumian in connection with her corruption allegations made against Khachatrian.
Speaking at a news conference last week, Hambardzumian, who has business interests in Syunik, charged that a mining company owned by the governor misappropriated mining equipment worth more than 100 million drams ($263,000) from another firm belonging to her. She also accused him of bullying an Australian firm to sell a gold mine located in the mountainous region bordering Iran.
Hambardzumian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that Khachatrian assaulted her as she was about to leave the lobby of the Armenia Marriott Hotel after a meeting with a foreign business partner. She said he hit her before being pulled away by other men who accompanied him.
“I was shocked,” she said. “Not because of the beating itself but the fact that a man, a state official can beat a woman.”
According to Hambardzumian, the incident was witnessed by Khachik Manukian, a businessman and parliament deputy. But Manukian denied that. “When I arrived there everything was over,” he said. “I saw her sitting and crying.”
In Manukian words, Khachatrian and several other men sat nearby in the meantime. “People said that some incident occurred, that there were some cries,” the pro-government lawmaker said.
The press office of Syunik’s regional administration denied the assault allegations in a statement issued later on Tuesday. It accused the female entrepreneur of “slander.”
For its part, Marriott’s security service claimed that no violent incidents were witnessed by hotel staff or caught on surveillance cameras. “We have no cameras in that section,” a security guard, who identified himself as Armen, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Hambardzumian insisted, however, that the hotel has video evidence of the alleged assault and warned the Marriott management against withholding it.
Khachatrian, better known in Armenia with his “Liska” nickname, and his extended family have held sway in the regional town of Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media outlets in Yerevan have for years implicated them in violent attacks on local business rivals as well as government critics, including a Syunik newspaper editor whose car was set on fire in 2005.
The controversial governor has always denied involvement in such incidents and denounced opposition politicians and pro-opposition media for branding him a crime figure. Vazgen Manukian, a former opposition leader who now heads President Sarkisian’s Public Council, referred to him in as an “uneducated criminal” in 2007.
In 2008, Khachatrian faced an embarrassing government inquiry into a newspaper report that accused him of beating up a teenage boy. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Khachatrian, who was appointed as Syunik governor by former President Robert Kocharian, managed to retain his post even after the Armenian parliament’s Audit Chamber accused Syunik officials of embezzling 575 million drams ($1.5 million) worth of public funds and property later in 2008.
A member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Khachatrian was reputed to be Sarkisian’s protégé even before the current president succeeded Kocharian in 2008. He personally managed the parliamentary election campaign of Sarkisian’s controversial brother Aleksandr in 2007. The latter ran for parliament unopposed in a Goris constituency.
Also noteworthy is fact that official results of the February 2008 disputed presidential election showed Sarkisian receiving the highest percentage of votes in Syunik.
Meanwhile, the HHK on Tuesday declined to directly comment on the latest scandal involving Khachatrian. “I am not inclined to make immediate evaluations,” the party’s deputy chairman, Galust Sahakian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I would just say that the HHK believes that state officials must live more restrained lives.”