YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) rallied hundreds of supporters and threatened to boycott parliament sessions on Monday after one of its activists was kidnapped and beaten unconscious in Yerevan.
The activist, Artak Khachatrian, was found dumped onto a street near his home on Saturday about five hours after being attacked while walking in the city center with a friend, Narek Abrahamian. According to Abrahamian, three masked men forced Khachatrian into a car and drove away.
Vahan Babayan, a parliament deputy from the BHK, claimed to have received a phone call from Khachatrian at around the same time. “I could hear him say, ‘Don’t hit me; where are you taking me?’ I could hear the beating. Then I lost the line,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Khachatrian was rushed to Yerevan’s Malatia Hospital where he underwent surgery for a broken nose on Sunday. A senior doctor there said the BHK activist will remain in the hospital for a week.
Armenia’s Investigative Committee was quick to launch a formal inquiry into the assault under an article of the Criminal Code dealing with kidnappings. It reported no arrests as of Monday afternoon.
Khachatrian was one of the main speakers at recent demonstrations in Yerevan that were staged by small business owners protesting against a controversial tax law. The protests, strongly backed by the BHK, continued on a smaller scale last week despite the Armenian government’s decision to freeze the law by another five months.
The BHK leadership condemned the attack on Khachatrian as politically motivated, saying that the Armenian authorities are thus trying to intimidate political groups challenging President Serzh Sarkisian. “We believe that the country’s supreme political leadership is primarily to blame for the atmosphere of banditry and lawlessness,” it said in a statement.
The governing board of Tsarukian’s party also instructed the BHK’s parliamentary faction, the second largest in the National Assembly, to consider boycotting parliament sessions together with its opposition allies.
One of those allies, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) deplored Khachatrian’s beating in even stronger terms on Sunday. The HAK linked it to a spate of similar attacks on five other opposition politicians and activists who actively participated in a series of nationwide demonstrations organized by the BHK, the HAK and another opposition party, Zharangutyun (Heritage) in the autumn.
Aram Manukian, an HAK lawmaker who was beaten up in November, backed the idea of the parliamentary boycott as he joined hundreds of BHK members and supporters in marching through central Yerevan on Monday. Chanting “Artak!” the demonstrators condemned the violence and demanded that the authorities identify those responsible for it.
“If the authorities’ aim is to turn Armenia into a gangster-infested Sicily then they must make an official statement to that effect,” Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK figure, told reporters during the protest.
The BHK activist was beaten up just two days after Tsarukian again blasted the Sarkisian administration’s economic track record and said the opposition trio will soon resume its campaign of anti-government street protests. Speaking at an opposition conference, the tycoon warned Sarkisian to abandon his plans for a sweeping constitutional reform or face a BHK push for his resignation.
It was announced on Monday that Tsarukian, HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and Zharangutyun’s Raffi Hovannisian will meet on February 15 to discuss their further joint steps.
In return, the government on Monday warned Tsarukian against exploiting the attack on Khachatrian to “heighten political tensions” in the country.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian condemned the violence and rejected BHK allegations that the Armenian authorities orchestrated it in a bid to intimidate Tsarukian’s party and other political forces challenging President Sarkisian.
In a weekend statement, the influential party’s governing board also claimed that tens of thousands of its supporters have expressed readiness to “converge on Yerevan” in response to the kidnapping and beating of Khachatrian, RFE/RL’s Armenian service reported.
“The BHK is asking them to refrain from such steps for the moment,” read the statement. “At the same time we are calling on our chapters and activists to drastically step up their work with the people in the regions in order to jointly hold a day of popular resentment.”
The BHK leadership went on to warn that those responsible for the attacks on Khachatrian and other opposition activists will not avoid punishment. “If the law-enforcement system does not do that, the people will do that,” it warned without elaborating.
Abrahamian strongly denied any government involvement in the violence, calling the BHK statement “unacceptable.” “I expect Gagik Tsarukian to personally monitor statements coming from his political structure,” he said in remarks to Tert.am. “Or else, we will have to regard emotional nonsense contained in them as his personal views.”
“In that case Gagik Tsarukian will personally bear full responsible for possible developments and escalations stemming from such irresponsible statements,” the premier added in what appears to be his first-ever public verbal attack on the BHK leader.
The two men have until now had a warm personal rapport not least because of the fact that Abrahamian’s younger son is married to one of Tsarukian’s daughters. The BHK has generally avoided attacking Abrahamian in its increasingly harsh evaluations of Armenian government policies.