A senior Armenian law-enforcement official insisted on Wednesday that a regional governor notorious for violent conduct was not personally involved in a shootout outside his house that left one person dead and sparked calls for his prosecution.
Gevorg Kostanian, Armenia’s chief military prosecutor, said Suren Khachatrian, the governor of the southeastern Syunik province, was not “at the site of the incident” in the provincial town of Goris late on June 1.
“It’s a fact, it was caught on the videotape,” Kostanian said, referring to footage from surveillance cameras in Khachatrian’s luxury house in Goris.
The remarks came as a further indication that Khachatrian will not be prosecuted in connection with the death of Avetik Budaghian, a local businessman who had tense relations with the controversial governor.
Budaghian was shot and killed in a gunfight that also involved his brother and Artak. The latter as well as one of Khachatrian’s bodyguards were seriously wounded in the shootout. Khachatrian’s 19-year-old son Tigran and another bodyguard were arrested on murder charges the following day.
Suren Khachatrian claims that he was asleep during the late-night incident.
Kostanian, who is overseeing the criminal investigation into the shootings, said they resulted from an “armed attack” on the governor’s villa. He said investigators are now trying to establish what prompted it. “The investigation will determine whether that attack resulted from a prior conspiracy or a sudden necessity,” he told a news conference.
The shootings occurred several hours after an outdoor dinner hosted by Khachatrian near Goris. The Budaghian brothers were invited to it along with other provincial dignitaries. According to news reports, Avetik Budaghian and the governor quarreled during the party.
Asked whether Khachatrian might have himself summoned the brothers to his villa later in the day, Kostanian said, “Maybe. The investigation will clarify.”
Police found and confiscated larges quantities of weapons in Khachatrian’s house shortly after the killings. The two arrested suspects were also charged with illegal arms possession.
Kostanian was asked why the same accusation was not leveled against the governor as well. “That doesn’t mean whose weapons and ammunition could not have been legally possessed by another individual,” he explained.
The prosecutor also dismissed opposition and media suggestions that law-enforcement authorities will again let Khachatrian off the hook under government pressure. “Political or other nuances cannot affect the objectivity and integrity of the investigation,” he claimed.
A senior member of President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Khachatrian has frequently been linked with violence in the past. Critics claim that he has managed to not only avoid prosecution but also hold on to his post because of ensuring extremely good election results for Sarkisian and the HHK. He received a major military medal from the president as recently as last month.
Khachatrian announced on Monday that he is resigning as Syunik governor “until the end of the investigation.” He said his decision was approved by an unspecified “superior body” in Yerevan. The Armenian government, which appoints regional governors, did not confirm that, however.
Legal experts point out that Armenian law does not allow a temporary resignation of state officials. The government has still not clarified whether Khachatrian is technically continuing to perform his duties.
In a letter sent to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s office on Wednesday, Zaruhi Postanjian, an opposition lawmaker, demanded an official explanation of Khachatrian’s current status. “There could be legal grounds for suspending him,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “But we don’t know who his [stated] superiors are and why they allowed him [to temporarily resign.]”
Sarkisian’s office has 10 days to reply to Postanjian’s letter. Sources said that the premier will likely comment on the matter on Thursday.