Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has issued a stark warning to “all those who dare threaten lawmakers” working on a bill that the government says is aimed at uprooting “widespread criminal subcultures” in Armenia.
The government-proposed measure, in particular, envisages outlawing the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy common to most post-Soviet countries – the so-called thieves-in-law.
The subculture that has existed in prisons throughout the Soviet Union since the times of gulags appears to continue to thrive in modern-day Armenia where top criminals are believed to control cash flows in the underworld.
Pashinian, who said he has first-hand knowledge about the subculture as a former prison inmate, reiterated his government’s strong determination to fight the phenomenon, which he said underpins corruption and affects the lives of hundreds of families in Armenia who have their relatives in jail.
Addressing parliamentarians on Wednesday, the premier also condemned alleged threats to pro-government lawmakers who present the bill in the chamber.
“If there are people, including political figures and parliament members, who think that they can indirectly threaten lawmakers over this bill, then I say directly that we will take them down on the ground and slam them up against a wall,” said Pashinian, dropping hints that the threats had been coming from former Gyumri mayor Vardan Ghukasian, who is a member of parliament with the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party today.
Earlier, talking to media, Ghukasian spoke against the bill, describing thieves-in-law as “well-behaved people.”
The pro-government Haykakan Zhamanak daily wrote that it was Ghukasian who made threats against My Step faction member Nazeni Baghdasarian, who also comes from Gyumri.
Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am), Baghdasarian did not deny that she had heard threats, but she did not give names. “It was done not directly, but through other people. I was urged to back off, because ‘some people in Gyumri have long arms’. They reminded me that I have a child. But in any case our policy and position remain unchanged – we have zero tolerance towards criminal subcultures and people who bear these subcultures,” the lawmaker said.
Later, adviser to Armenia’s prosecutor-general Gor Abrahamian said that a report on threats to MP Baghdasarian had been filed with the police.
Ghukasian, who served as Gyumri’s mayor in 1999-2008, denied having threatened anyone. Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) on the phone he repeated his thoughts about thieves-in-law.
“Give me the name of a single thieve-in-law who has committed any act of hooliganism or any violation of law over the past 50 years,” he said. “I am absolutely against this bill. I support prosecution based on concrete crimes [and not for the status].”
Human rights activist Nina Karapetiants welcomed the prime minister’s tough rhetoric on the matter, but disagreed with his “vocabulary.”
“The reaction should be tough, but the vocabulary that perhaps was tolerable after the revolution is no longer appropriate, because the new government has a very high level of prestige and legitimacy today and the prime minister should understand that he must not go beyond certain boundaries,” she said.