The mayor of an Armenian town affiliated with the former ruling Republican Party (HHK) and three other men were controversially released from custody on Saturday one day after being charged with assaulting protesters in Yerevan in April.
The incident took place in the city’s southern Erebuni district just hours after Nikol Pashinian, the main organizer of mass protests against HHK leader Serzh Sarkisian’s continued rule, was detained on April 22. Hundreds of Pashinian supporters demonstrating there were attacked by several dozen men wearing medical masks and wielding sticks and even electric shock guns.
Five individuals were arrested on Thursday in connection with the violence. They included Davit Hambardzumian, the mayor of Masis, a small town about 10 kilometers south of Yerevan, and his deputy Karen Ohanian.
Armenia’s Investigative Committee charged Hambardzumian with organizing the “mass riots” on Friday before asking a court in Yerevan to sanction his and the four other suspects’ pre-trial arrest. The latter stand accused of participating in the attack.
The court rejected all but one of those petitions, however. The presiding judge, Tatevik Grigorian, ordered the immediate release of Hambardzumian, Ohanian, the mayor’s cousin Gevorg and another suspect pending investigation.
Hambardzumian rejected the criminal case as “false” and said he will not resign as Masis mayor when he walked free in the courtroom. “What should I resign for?” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The Investigative Committee insisted that it has sufficient video and other evidence of the mayor’s and the other freed suspects’ involvement in the Erebuni attack. A spokesperson for the law-enforcement body said it will ask a prosecutor overseeing the probe to appeal against Grigorian’s ruling.
The 30-year-old judge presided over the recent high-profile trial of Zhirayr Sefilian and other radical opposition figures convicted of plotting to overthrow former President Serzh Sarkisian. She repeatedly refused to free those defendants pending a verdict in the case.
Grigorian’s decision to have Mayor Hambardzumian freed for now caused outrage among many Armenian civil society members and other supporters of the new government in Yerevan. They were quick to accuse her of acting on orders issued by Sarkisian’s HHK or other state elements loyal to the former Armenian government.
Incidentally, eight senior parliamentarians representing the HHK last week sent a joint letter to Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian and the Investigative Committee head, Aghvan Hovsepian, calling for the release of Hambardzumian and the other suspects.
The mayor’s arrest sparked street protests by his supporters in Masis. Some of them also demonstrated outside the Yerevan court before the ruling.
Hambardzumian, 32, is an HHK member who was elected mayor in 2016 with the help of the then ruling party. He is reportedly related to the chief bodyguard of Vladimir Gasparian, the former head of the Armenian police sacked by Pashinian.
Law-enforcement authorities have also made at least three other arrests in connection with similar incidents that occurred in two other parts of Yerevan during the Pashinian-led protest movement. Some Armenian media outlets have accused Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian and Mihran Poghosian, a controversial parliamentarian, of orchestrating those attacks on protesters. Both men affiliated with the HHK deny that.