More than a thousand furious residents of Gyumri marched through Armenia’s second largest city on Wednesday to demand that a Russian soldier accused of killing six members of a local family be handed over to Armenian law-enforcement authorities.
The protest began with a procession of cars that drove around the city and stopped by key government and security buildings as well as the Russian consulate there. The protesters went on to walk towards the Gyumri headquarters of a Russian military base in Armenia where the soldier, Valery Permyakov, has been kept since being caught on Monday.
After scuffling with Armenian security forces, they broke through a police cordon to approach the base’s main checkpoint located in the city’s outskirts. The protesters were stopped there by more lines of riot police and about two dozen Russian soldiers standing behind them. Organizers of the protest pleaded with the mostly male and young crowd not to clash with them.
A senior Armenian prosecutor arrived at the scene later in the day in a bid to ease tensions. He urged the crowd to demonstrate elsewhere in Gyumri.
The demonstrators reluctantly agreed to disperse. But they gave the Armenian and Russian authorities until Thursday evening to ensure Permyakov’s extradition or face more protests.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General said on Tuesday that it is “not discussing” Permyakov’s handover with Russian military officials because Russia’s constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian nationals to foreign states. It made no reference to a 1997 treaty regulating the Russian military presence in Armenia.
The treaty stipulates that Russian military personnel in the South Caucasus suspected of committing crimes outside their installations shall be dealt with by Armenian law-enforcement and judicial authorities.
The prosecutors’ explanation angered many Armenians who fear that the Russian military will cover up the gruesome crime. Some of them also consider Russian custody of the suspect a violation of Armenia’s national sovereignty.
In an apparent response to the Gyumri protest, the Office of the Prosecutor-General issued on Wednesday afternoon a statement saying that it is doing everything to “ensure the inevitability of criminal liability for the crime.”
Another Armenian law-enforcement agency, the Investigative Committee (IC), said it is taking measures to ensure that the ongoing investigation into the killings is “comprehensive, full and objective.” The committee also announced that it has formally indicted Permyakov on corresponding murder charges.
But neither the prosecutors nor the IC clarified whether the Armenian authorities will seek to have custody of the Russian soldier.
“Our demands have not been fulfilled,” Levon Barseghian, one of the organizers of the Gyumri protest, declared after reading out both statements to the angry crowd standing outside the local prosecutors’ headquarters. “The prosecutors have not changed their position voiced yesterday,” he said.
The protesters responded by marching towards the Russian base. They chanted “Shame!” and “We are the masters of our country!” during the protest.
Raffi Aslanian, the chief regional prosecutor, rushed to the main entrance to the base headquarters shortly after the crowd reached it and was confronted by a larger number of riot police. He spent about two hours trying to convince it to march back to the city center.
“Dear people, please do not succumb to provocations,” Aslanian said through a megaphone. “Rest assured that if this gathering was to produce results I would stay with you.”
“It’s not that you are concerned and we are not,” he said. “If you want to fight you must do it legally.”
Aslanian then demonstratively phoned Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian to convey the protesters’ demands. After the phone call he cited Kostanian as telling him that senior law-enforcement officials will hold more “discussions” regarding Permyakov’s fate later on Wednesday and Thursday.
“After the discussions are over, the prosecutors will issue a statement,” added the top prosecutor of the Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital. He gave no further details.
The angry people eventually agreed to disperse. But Barseghian and other protest leaders told them to again gather in a central Gyumri square after the funeral of Seryozha Avetisian, his wife, unmarried daughter, son, daughter-in-law and 2-year-old granddaughter, slated for Thursday afternoon. Barseghian said they will march to the local prosecutors’ office and hear the authorities’ answer to their demands.