Hundreds of people attended the funeral of an Armenian military doctor on Monday amid continuing public outrage against a government-connected businessman who employed the men accused of beating him to death at a Yerevan restaurant last month.
The crowd comprising Armenia’s top army general, opposition politicians and civic activists silently walked behind Vahe Avetian’s body as it was carried in an open coffin through a Yerevan neighborhood where he lived with his family. The procession was led by a military brass band and soldiers holding four wreathes. A letter from the 35-year-old’s first name emblazoned on each of them.
Prominent political and public figures attending the funeral reaffirmed their strong condemnation of the June 17 beating of Avetian and two other military doctors at the Harsnakar restaurant.
Naira Zohrabian, a senior parliament deputy from the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), referred to it as an act of “inhuman savagery.” “How can a person become a brainless animal to do such a thing in our country?” she told reporters. “We have gathered here to make such persons understand that they are not privileged, that savagery and murder must not have sponsors.”
Still, unlike many other Armenians outraged by the violence, Zohrabian was careful not to blame Ruben Hayrapetian, an influential businessman who owns Harsnakar. She said law-enforcement authorities should determine whether he is responsible for Avetian’s death.
Zaruhi Postanjian another parliamentarian representing the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, said Hayrapetian must resign as both parliament deputy and chairman of the Armenian Football Federation. Postanjian also questioned investigators’ ability and willingness to solve the case.
Bagrat Yesayan, a prominent member of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said Hayrapetian should at least be questioned in the ongoing criminal investigation into the incident. “Thanks to journalists, it has emerged that his personal bodyguard, rather than a restaurant security guard, was there,” he said. “A personal bodyguard has to always accompany his boss. So it must be clarified whether or not Ruben Hayrapetian was at the restaurant compound and whether that disgraceful incident occurred with his knowledge.”
For his part, Colonel-General Yuri Khachaturov, chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff, issued a stark warning to Hayrapetian and other “oligarchs” that have long been linked with violent conduct. “I want to warn everyone not to touch the army,” Khachaturov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) during the funeral. “I’m saying that for the last time. Those who have bodyguards, armed men must behave themselves.”
Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian sounded more cautious in separate remarks to RFE/RL’s Armenian service elsewhere in Yerevan. “I think that we must create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance in our homeland and people must understand that they must solve issues by means of words, rather than fists,” he said.
Ohanian also disapproved of street demonstrations accusing Hayrapetian of complicity in the doctor’s death and demanding his punishment. “I believe that we must not organize unnecessary public events,” he said.
The minister went on to criticize another army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Vartan Samvelian, who was arrested on Sunday after reportedly threatening to blow up Harsnakar. “In terms of strength and military skills, the lieutenant-colonel is not the only person within our armed forces,” he said. “If everyone takes such actions where will they get us?”
Samvelian, who is a deputy commander of an army regiment headquartered in Yerevan, is kept under arrest on suspicion of illegal arms possession, suggesting that he will not face a lengthy prison sentence if put on trial.
“I don’t think he really wanted to blow up [the restaurant,]” Vladimir Gasparian, chief of the Armenian police, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “I think he was drunk and took an initiative. I think the investigation will evaluate everything.”
Gasparian agreed that the Harsnakar assault highlighted the need to rein in the notoriously violent bodyguards working for wealthy entrepreneurs. He said the Armenian parliament will soon debate a government bill aimed at strictly regulating armed protection of such individuals.
Meanwhile, street protests against what their participants see as impunity enjoyed by Hayrapetian and other tycoons continued on Monday. About a hundred civic activists marched to the Office of the Prosecutor-General from a Yerevan cemetery where Avetian was buried. They chanted “I am Vahe” and warned against a cover-up of the doctor’s death.