In a statement released on Thursday, the Office of the Prosecutor-General said Mkhitar Zakarian, the mayor of the southeastern towns of Agarak and Meghri and nearby villages making up a single administrative unit, has been charged with abuse of power.
The accusation stems from the use of a small plot of agricultural land belonging to the community which has been rented by an Agarak resident since 2007. The statement said that the latter illegally rented the land to a mobile phone company at a much higher price.
“[Zakarian] should have annulled the lease agreement because of its blatant breach,” Sedrak Besalian, a prosecutor overseeing the investigation, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Besalian also claimed that the mayor caused his community 3.7 million drams ($7,100) in financial damage.
Zakarian on Friday dismissed the accusation as “absurd.” “I can’t understand what my alleged crime is all about,” he said. “They won’t give me any clear explanation.”
Zakarian argued, in particular, that the lease agreement was signed before he was elected mayor of Agarak and that he significantly improved its financial terms for the local community after taking office in 2008.
The official was careful not to describe the accusation as politically motivated. But he did suggest that prosecutors may have indicted him in order to please the Armenian government.
Zakarian was among the heads of a dozen communities in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province who issued statements in early December condemning Pashinian’s handling of the war with Azerbaijan and demanding his resignation. They also accused Pashinian of putting Syunik’s security at grave risk with Armenian troop withdrawals from adjacent areas southwest of Karabakh.
Later in December law-enforcement authorities leveled separate criminal charges against two of those mayors running the towns of Goris and Kajaran. Armenian courts refused to allow their arrest sought by investigators.
Both mayors rejected the accusations as politically motivated. They encouraged hundreds of local residents who blocked a regional highway to disrupt Pashinian’s visit to Syunik on December 21.
The prosecutors did not move to arrest Zakarian. The Meghri mayor told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that he agreed to post bail to avoid pre-trial detention. He said he is confident that he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.