Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Friday defended his decision to appoint a retired police general as governor of Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province which has prompted criticism from human rights activists.
Lieutenant-General Hunan Poghosian served as first deputy chief of the Armenian police during most of former President Serzh Sarkisian’s decade-long rule. He resigned immediately after Pashinian came to power in May in a wave of anti-Sarkisian protests.
Pashinian explained Poghosian’s appointment as governor when he visited the provincial capital Kapan to campaign for a candidate of his Civil Contract party running in an upcoming election of the town’s mayor.
Speaking at a campaign rally, Pashinian alleged attempts to “restore the old oligarchic logic” in Syunik. The mountainous region bordering Iran should therefore be governed by a tough security officer who can “bang his fist on the table” and maintain law and order, protect civil liberties and guarantee free enterprise, he said.
Human rights activists and even some Pashinian supporters criticized the Armenian government after it formalized Poghosian’s appointment on Tuesday.They said that the police general was closely linked to the former ruling regime accused of corruption and human rights abuses.
Pashinian countered that he faced similar criticism when he appointed two other career officers, Valeri Osipinian and Artur Vanetsian, as heads of the police and the National Security Service (NSS) respectively in May. He argued that both men are now popular with his supporters.
“When I walk in the streets with [Vanetsian] people hail and thank him as well as Mr. Osipian,” he said. “Mr. Poghosian, I hope that when I come here next time people will welcome you in the same way in Kapan and the other towns of Syunik.”
Pashinian also noted that Poghosian was the one who had him rushed to hospital when he was injured in an April 16 clash in downtown Yerevan between his supporters and riot police.
The choice of Poghosian proved controversial also because of past allegations that he beat up a well-known maverick activist arrested while leading a violent anti-government demonstration in 2013. The activist, Shant Harutiunian, was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.
Pashinian himself voiced the torture allegations in a 2013 interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The premier argued on Friday that Harutiunian never gave formal incriminating testimony against the police general. Nevertheless, he said, he has instructed law-enforcement authorities to again investigate the alleged torture.
“I don’t know what happened in 2013,” said Pashinian. “But I also want to say that as prime minister I asked Hunan Poghosian about that incident and got an answer which satisfied me. Let the investigation ascertain the rest. In Armenia, everyone is equal before the law.”
Meanwhile, Harutiunian’s teenage son Shahen told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that Poghosian never personally assaulted his father in custody. He said the jailed activist was physically abused by other security officials in the presence of Poghosian and Vladimir Gasparian, the then national police chief.
Still, Shant Harutiunian’s lawyer, Inessa Petrosian, insisted that Poghosian must be held accountable for the alleged ill-treatment. “Nikol Pashinian must scrap the appointment of that governor,” she said.