YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—An Armenian military officer was arrested and charged with negligence on Thursday in connection with last week’s deaths of 15 soldiers.
The conscripts were found dead at their makeshift barracks burned down by a major fire. They were part of an engineer-sapper company stationed in a border village in Armenia’s eastern Gegharkunik province.
The arrested suspect is a deputy commander of a Gegharkunik military base who was in charge of rear supply and accommodation. Investigators did not name him. They said only that he failed to provide the company with fire-safety equipment.
Prosecutor-General Anna Vardapetyan announced the first arrest in the probe of the shock deaths during a weekly session of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s cabinet. More officers will be indicted soon, Vardapetyan said without elaborating.
Pashinyan and Defense Minister Suren Papikyan said hours after the tragedy that the soldiers died in the fire sparked by an officer who poured gasoline into a wood stove in breach of the military’s safety rules. The officer, Captain Yeghishe Hakobyan, and two other servicemen suffered serious burns and remain in hospital.
The official version of events is questioned by human rights activists, opposition figures as well as relatives of some of the victims.
One of those relatives, Artak Asryan, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Wednesday that his son Rostom and the 14 other soldiers had a serious argument with the injured captain in the run-up to the fire.
“There was a big fight two days before [the fire,]” said Asryan. “[Rostom] called me at night … and said, ‘Dad, the sooner I get out of here the better.’ He said everyone is in trouble.”
Other critics accuse Pashinyan of jumping to a conclusion before the completion of the criminal investigation into what was one of the deadliest noncombat incidents ever registered in the Armenian army ranks.
“Pashinyan came up with a theory and named the guilty person during the government meeting held [on January 19] just a few hours after the tragedy,” said Artur Khachatryan, an opposition parliamentarian.
Khachatryan said the prime minister thus made it extremely hard for investigators to seriously explore other potential causes of the soldiers’ deaths.
During Thursday’s cabinet meeting, Pashinyan asked Vardapetyan and Argishti Kyaramyan, the head of the Investigative Committee, to respond to the criticism.
“We cannot hide and do not intend to hide anything,” replied the country’s chief prosecutor. “The theory publicized by you is the viable theory at the moment.”
Kyaramian said, for his part, that testimony given by witnesses in the case corroborates what Pashinyan said on January 19.