Armenian Mayor Resigns After Corruption Claims Against Ex-General

Armenia - A screenshot of official video of security officers finding large stockpiles of food in a villa belonging to retired General Manvel Grigorian, 17 June 2018.

The embattled mayor of the Armenian town of Echmiadzin resigned late on Sunday after law-enforcement authorities made new and far more embarrassing accusations against his father, retired General Manvel Grigorian, arrested by them.

The National Security Service (NSS) claimed to have found in Grigorian’s mansions not only large quantities of illegal acquired weapons but also large stockpiles of food and other supplies meant for Armenian army soldiers. The NSS accused him of misappropriating those items.

The allegations, backed up by an official video of searches conducted by security officers, caused widespread shock and outrage in Armenia. They led the former ruling Republican Party (HHK), to which Grigorian has long been allied, to stop describing the criminal case against him as politically motivated.

The once powerful general, who served as deputy defense minister from 2000-2008, was taken into custody on Saturday on the third day of street protests against his son Karen, who has been Echmiadzin’s mayor for almost a decade. The protests were reportedly organized by Artur Asatrian, an Echmiadzin native whom Armenian media outlets have long described as a crime figure.

Asatrian, who is better known to the public with his “Don Pippo” nickname, and his four bodyguards were also arrested on Saturday. The NSS accused them of illegal arms possession and kidnappings.

Mayor Grigorian staged a counterdemonstration of his supporters and rejected calls for his resignation as the security service raided his father’s two opulent villas located in Echmiadzin and a nearby village. The NSS initially claimed to have found and confiscated only “illegally acquired” weapons and ammunition stashed there.

Armenia - Echmiadzin Mayor Karen Grigorian holds a news conference in Yerevan, 16 Jun 2018.

The HHK, which is headed by former President Serzh Sarkisian, was quick to condemn Manvel Grigorian’s arrest and demand his release. Also, more than a hundred people protested against his detention outside the NSS headquarters in Yerevan on Saturday night. The protesters were mostly members of the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans. Grigorian, who was a prominent field commander during the war, has led the union for nearly two decades.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian defended the arrest in a video address to the nation aired through Facebook on Sunday afternoon. He was the first to announce that Grigorian is also suspected of large-scale embezzlement.

“There are strong suspicions that he misappropriated aid sent to the people of Karabakh and the army and these suspicions are substantiated by the results of searches conducted at his properties,” said Pashinian.

“Nobody denies that Manvel Grigorian is a hero of Artsakh (Karabakh),” Pashinian went on. “But even the heroes have no right to steal aid sent by schoolchildren in Gyumri, Echmiadzin and Yerevan to soldiers fighting on the frontlines and to feed his wild animals with it.”

Armenia - Canned food found in a villa belonging to retired General Manvel Grigorian, 17 June 2018.

The NSS released the video later in the day. It showed NSS officers discovering large amounts of underwear, medication and field rations for soldiers provided by the Armenian Defense Ministry as well as other food donated by ordinary Armenians at a sprawling compound in Grigorian’s native village, Arshaluys.

The donations were made by local communities, public schools and other civilian institutions during the April 2016 war in Karabakh. Some of the food parcels purportedly found in Grigorian’s villa contained letters of support written by schoolchildren to Armenian frontline troops.

“It emerged that Manvel Grigorian has used the food meant for soldiers participating in the four-day April [2016] war for feeding animals of his private zoo,” the NSS charged in a statement. It said Grigorian also misappropriated several vehicles that were donated to the military two years ago.

The video also featured many weapons, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, as well as several dozen expensive and retro cars parked in the Arshaluys compound. It was swiftly aired by Armenia’s main TV channels and widely shared on social media.

“I, Karen Grigorian, am resigning by my will,” the Echmiadzin mayor said in a late-night Facebook post. He did not elaborate.

The HHK reacted to the embarrassing video on Monday with a statement which called the ex-general’s alleged corruption “unacceptable and outrageous.” “We are shocked and outraged that such things could have possibly been done by anyone, especially a general who had actively participated in the Artsakh war,” read an HHK statement.

“While respecting the presumption of innocence, we are declaring that if the accusations levelled against Manvel Grigorian are proved in a manner defined by the law he must be legally and strictly held accountable,” it said.

Armenia - Retired General Manvel Grigoryan speaks to reporters in Yerevan, 8 May, 2017

The HHK spokesman, Eduard Sharmazanov, indicated earlier in the day that the former ruling party no longer regards the high-profile case as politically motivated. “I must declare that the matter lies in a purely legal domain and we must allow investigators to carry out further actions in a manner defined by the law,” said Sharmazanov. “If it turns out that all this is true, there can be no justification for it,” he added.

The HHK did not clarify whether its lawmakers will vote for allowing law-enforcement authorities to press charges against Manvel Grigorian, who was reelected to the Armenian parliament on the HHK ticket last year.

Members of the parliament cannot be formally charged and kept under arrest for more than three days without the National Assembly’s consent. The HHK still has the largest faction in the parliament.

Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General said investigators have already collected sufficient evidence for having Grigorian’s immunity from prosecution lifted. It said Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian has therefore asked the Armenian government to call an emergency session of the parliament for that purpose.

Meanwhile, Manvel Grigorian’s lawyer, Hrant Ananian, said he was taken aback by the NSS revelations and decided to stop representing the 61-year-old ex-general. “When I was taking over the case those circumstances were not known to me,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (