The Armenian governor reappointed a man notorious for violent conduct as governor of the southeastern Syunik province on Thursday more than one year after he was forced to resign following a high-profile murder committed outside his private residence.
Suren Khachatrian’s appointment was formally proposed by Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and approved by his cabinet at its weekly session in Yerevan. “Mr. Khachatrian, we congratulate and wish you productive work,” said Abrahamian. He gave no reasons for the move which was almost certainly sanctioned by President Serzh Sarkisian.
Justice Minister Hovannes Manukian categorically refused to comment on Khachatrian’s reappointment at a news briefing held after the cabinet meeting. Manukian urged reporters to change the subject and stormed out after they kept pressing him.
The development, anticipated by some media outlets in recent weeks, inevitably cast a renewed spotlight on the June 2013 fatal shooting of a 43-year-old businessman, Avetik Budaghian, outside Khachatrian’s villa in Goris, a town in Syunik. Budaghian and his brother Artak, an army colonel, clashed with Khachatrian’s sons and bodyguards just hours after taking part in a dinner hosted by the Syunik governor for several local dignitaries. Artak Budaghian was seriously wounded in the shootout.
Khachatrian’s 20-year-old son Tigran and one of his bodyguards were subsequently arrested and charged with murder and illegal arms possession. The governor, for his part, was sacked by the government amid an outcry from the victim’s family.
The two men were released from custody and cleared of any wrongdoing in September 2013. Law-enforcement authorities claimed that the gunshots fired by them constituted legitimate self-defense as the Budaghian brothers mounted an “armed assault” on Khachatrian’s residence.
The Budaghian family strongly disputes those claims, saying that shortly before the shootout Suren Khachatrian assaulted Avetik Budaghian in his car in an attempt to force the latter to share his business revenues with the governor’s clan. The family’s lawyers have suggested that Khachatrian may have also fired at the brothers during the armed clash.
Khachatrian, who has a long history of violence, has insisted all along that he slept in his house as the two groups of armed men exchanged gunfire at its doorstep.
The newly reappointed Syunik governor again denied any direct involvement in the Goris businessman’s death as he emerged from the main government building in Yerevan on Thursday. “Did you kill Avetik Budaghian?” one of the journalists asked. “Are you mentally sick, man?” retorted Khachatrian.
Not surprisingly, the government’s decision to reinstate Khachatrian prompted outrage from the victim’s family, opposition politicians, and civic activists. “Anything can now be expected in this country,” Avetik’s father, Emil Budaghian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“This is a demonstration of sadistic attitude towards the people of Armenia and Syunik in particular,” said Samvel Harutiunian, a former Goris mayor and longtime Khachatrian rival.
“This proves that the head of the ruling regime as well as the man occupying the post of prime minister, Hovik Abrahamian, do not want to be different from Surik Khachatrian and are even doing everything to resemble him,” charged Harutiunian.
Khachatrian, better known to the public as “Liska,” has held sway in Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media 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, who is a senior member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), 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 in 2004 by then President Robert Kocharian, managed to retain his position even after assaulting in a Yerevan hotel lobby in late 2011 a businesswoman who accused him of fraud. Although the incident was captured by a surveillance camera, law-enforcement bodies refused to bring criminal charges against him on the grounds that the woman did not suffer serious physical injuries.
Official results of Armenian elections held over the past decade have shown President Sarkisian and his HHK winning more votes in Syunik than in any other part of the country. Critics say this explains why Khachatrian retained his job for so long.
Neither the HHK nor the presidential administration reacted last year to Khachatrian’s threats to “smash the head” of Raffi Hovannisian, Sarkisian’s main challenger in the February 2013 presidential election. The Armenian president, who repeatedly pledged to uphold justice during the presidential race, instead gave a major state award, the Order of Combat Cross, to the governor in May 2013.