Surik Khachatrian, an Armenian regional governor notorious for reportedly violent conduct, will not be prosecuted despite being found guilty of assaulting a businesswoman who accused him of fraud, law-enforcement authorities said on Tuesday.
The announcement all but ended speculation that Khachatrian, who runs Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province, may be sacked after yet another scandal.
Silva Hambardzumian, who has business interests in Syunik, claimed on November 14 to have been attacked and hit by Khachatrian in the lobby of a Yerevan hotel.
The incident took place just days after Hambardzumian alleged at a news conference that a mining company owned by him misappropriated mining equipment worth more than 100 million drams ($263,000) from another firm belonging to her. She also accused Khachatrian of forcing an Australian firm to sell a gold mine located in the mountainous region bordering Iran.
The governor strongly denied assaulting the businesswoman before being questioned in an inquiry launched by the Special Investigative Service (SIS). The probe was conducted under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code dealing with beatings.
Citing eyewitness accounts and footage from hotel security cameras, the SIS said on Tuesday that Khachatrian did slap Hambardzumian in the face at the Armenia Marriott Hotel and now “regrets” his actions. But it said the violence does not count as a “beating” because it did not involve multiple blows or cause the victim any physical injuries.
SIS investigators have therefore closed a criminal case opened in connection with the incident, the law-enforcement agency subordinate to state prosecutors added in a statement.
The statement did not explain why Khachatrian cannot be prosecuted on charges of hooliganism that also carry prison sentences. Violent actions or even threat of them are defined by the Criminal Code as hooliganism.
Hambardzumian, meanwhile, appeared to be broadly satisfied with the SIS announcement, saying that Khachatrian’s reported regrets amount to a public apology. She also said that the governor will compensate her for her allegedly stolen equipment.
“He should pay up by the end of this week,” the entrepreneur told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Khachatrian denied planning to do that, however. “Nobody took anything away from her and nobody has to compensate her,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by phone, the governor insisted that he “shoved,” rather than hit, Hambardzumian but refused to go into details of the incident. “Don’t act like a criminal investigator,” he said.
Khachatrian, who is better known in Armenia with his “Liska” nickname, has held sway in the Syunik town of Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media outlets in Yerevan have long implicated him and his relatives 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.
Khachatrian risked dismissal in 2008 as he 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.
The SIS’s decision not to press charges against him was denounced on Tuesday by human rights activists as further proof of impunity enjoyed by influential individuals close to Armenia’s political leadership. Zhanna Aleksanian, a veteran journalist specializing in human rights, linked the development with the unfolding preparations for parliamentary elections due in May 2012.
“We have had numerous chances to see that Surik Khachatrian is above the law and allowed to do anything,” Aleksanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The more so now that we are entering a pre-election period.”
“Indeed, how can you hurt someone who does all the vote rigging in Syunik?” she asked with sarcasm.
Official results of the last Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections marred by fraud allegations showed President Sarkisian and his Republican Party doing better in Syunik than in any other part of the country.