Thousands of mourners in Gyumri attended on Wednesday the funeral of a six-month-old Armenian boy who died of his injuries one week after a brutal attack that left the six other members of his family dead.
The crowd silently walked behind the body of Seryozha Avetisian as it was carried from Surp Nshan Church to a cemetery in Armenia’s second largest city still reeling from the January 12 massacre blamed on a Russian soldier.
Christian priests sang hymns for the infant as he was buried next to his 2-year-old sister, parents, aunt and grandparents murdered in their home. Hundreds of people threw handfuls of sand onto his grave at the end of the ceremony attended by senior Armenian lawmakers and local government leaders.
President Serzh Sarkisian did not take part in the funeral despite a nationwide wave of shock and sympathy for the baby that was triggered by his death on Monday. Sarkisian was also conspicuously absent when the six other members of the Avetisian family were laid to rest on January 15.
That funeral was followed by violent clashes near the Russian consulate in Gyumri between riot police and angry protesters demanding that Valery Permyakov, the Russian soldier charged with killing the Avetisians, be handed over to the Armenian law-enforcement authorities.
The Russian and Armenian authorities have since been scrambling to calm the population. President Vladimir Putin telephoned Sarkisian on January 18 before sending the head of Russia’s state investigative agency, Aleksandr Bastrykin, to Armenia.
Bastrykin and his Armenian opposite number, Aghvan Hovsepian, announced through spokespersons on Tuesday that the two sides will set up a joint body to coordinate their ongoing separate investigations into the killings.
Hovsepian’s spokeswoman, Sona Truzian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatututyun.am) that Armenian investigators on Wednesday interrogated Permyakov at a Russian military base in Gyumri where the suspect has been kept since his January 12 arrest. Truzian said they also formally charged him under corresponding articles of the Armenian Criminal Code.
Permyakov was already charged with multiple murder and desertion by Russian investigators last week.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, made clear late on Tuesday that the 18-year-old conscript will be tried in Armenia but by a Russian court and under Russian law. It is not clear whether the court will consider evidence collected by the Armenian side.
Organizers of the Gyumri protests insisted, meanwhile, that the case be heard by an Armenian court. They believe that a Russian trial would increase chances of a cover-up.
Levon Barseghian, one of the protest leaders, warned of renewed unrest. “Gyumri and the whole country are awaiting action from the authorities,” he wrote on Facebook after Seryozha’s funeral. “The city is sitting on two time bombs. [Prosecutor-General] Gevorg Kostanian and Serzh Sarkisian will be fully responsible for the consequences.”
Kostanian promised about 2,000 protesters on January 15 that he will send a letter to his Russian counterpart Yury Chaika asking him to agree to place Permyakov under Armenian jurisdiction. It is still not clear whether Kostanian has acted on that pledge.
Barseghian on Wednesday also dismissed the formation of the Russian-Armenian coordinating body. He said it did not address local residents’ lingering concerns.
Vartan Harutiunian, a Yerevan-based human rights activist agreed. “The only way to calm tempers is to hand over the suspect to the Armenian side,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Ara Ghazarian, an Armenian lawyer, said that such a handover is unlikely. Ghazarian suggested that the Russians will seize upon the desertion charge to argue that Permyakov broke Russian law as well.