Vartan Ghukasian, the controversial former mayor of Gyumri, was detained along with two dozen other persons late on Tuesday in connection with the killing of a man reputedly connected with his most bitter local rival.
The man, Artyom Karapetian, and another well-known Gyumri resident, Harutyun Khachatrian, were shot by unknown gunmen outside the latter’s apartment block early in the afternoon. Karapetian died in hospital shortly afterwards, while Khachatrian survived after undergoing surgery.
Many in Armenia’s second largest city were quick to point the finger at Ghukasian and his extended family. Karapetian brawled with a Ghukasian loyalist in the run-up to the May 2012 parliamentary elections, while Khachatrian’s son reportedly had a bust-up with one of the ex-mayor’s nephews, Kolya Ghukasian, earlier this year. Kolya was arrested at an Armenian-Georgian border crossing shortly after the killing.
Vartan Ghukasian was taken to a police station in Gyumri a few hours later. A police spokesman declined to specify if he is suspected of involvement in the killing, saying only that 20 other individuals were also taken into custody.
The murdered and wounded men are known as members of a Gyumri clan led by Martun Grigorian, a 32-year-old businessman and parliament deputy representing the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). Grigorian has been at loggerheads with Ghukasian and his extended family ever since unsuccessfully trying to unseat the long-serving mayor in a 2008 election. The vote was marred by violent incidents and accusations of fraud.
Ghukasian, 52, was dogged by scandals and controversies throughout his 13-year tenure that unexpectedly ended last summer after he lost the crucial backing of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Critics, including independent media outlets, accused him of leading a clan that controls much of the local economy and tolerates no competition.
In 2007, Ghukasian narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt when unknown gunmen opened fire on his motorcade outside Yerevan, seriously wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards. Despite his subsequent fall from grace, the flamboyant ex-mayor was allowed to stand next to President Serzh Sarkisian during a campaign gathering that was held by the incumbent in Gyumri ahead of the February 2013 presidential election.
Ghuksian has also been repeatedly embarrassed by his notoriously unruly elder son Spartak. The latter was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007 for provoking a street gunfight between two groups of young men in Gyumri. He was granted parole six months later.
In August last year, Spartak Ghukasian appeared to have fled Armenia after being accused by the police of involvement in an election-related brawl accompanied by gunfire. He returned home later in 2012, avoiding imprisonment.