The Armenian parliament has approved a government bill aimed at tackling what officials describe as a deeply-rooted “criminal subculture” in the country.
The bill passed in the first reading late on Tuesday involves relevant amendments to Armenia’s Criminal Code and Code of Procedural Justice. It criminalizes the creation of and membership in groups “carrying a criminal subculture” and outlaws underworld ranks granted to crime figures.
Holders of the highest of these ranks are known as “thieves-in-law” in the former Soviet Union. They name “overseers” of criminal activity in prisons or various regions.
Anyone receiving or granting such ranks will now face between seven and ten years’ imprisonment. Having ties to such individuals will also be deemed a criminal offense.
The bill was drafted by the Justice Ministry and approved by the Armenian government in late August. Some media outlets linked its circulation with riots that broke out in the country’s main prisons in early September. Inmates reportedly resisted government efforts to root out underworld rules that have long regulated prison life in Armenia, Russia and other ex-Soviet states.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian insisted on the need for such anti-criminal legislation when he presented it during a parliament debate this week. Deputies from the ruling My Step alliance strongly backed the bill.
But some opposition lawmakers voiced objections, saying that the bill is not specific enough. “We have always said that criminals must be punished, but they must be punished for concrete deeds,” said Gevorg Petrosian of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK).
Another BHK parliamentarian, Vartan Ghukasian, found himself in hot water last week after declaring that he respects many “thieves-in-law” because he believes “nobody is smarter than them in the world.”
More importantly, he allegedly warned and threatened the main parliamentary co-sponsor of the legislation, My Step’s Nazeli Baghdasarian. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian angrily warned Ghukasian against acting on the alleged threats.
Ghukasian strongly denied pressuring Baghdasarian to stop backing the bill. The pro-government lawmaker insisted on Tuesday that she did receive implicit threats and warnings from individuals familiar with Ghukasian. She did not name them.
Ghukasian, 58, served as mayor of Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri from 1999-2012. He and his close relatives were accused of violent conduct throughout his tenure.
In April 2013, Ghukasian, his notorious son Spartak and two dozen other men were rounded up by the Gyumri police following the killing of a man connected to the ex-mayor’s most bitter local rival. Ghukasian was set free after spending several hours in police custody. One of his nephews was arrested and charged with murder.