YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—A son of Suren Khachatrian, a former Armenian provincial governor notorious for violent conduct, was set free and cleared of any wrongdoing on Saturday, two months after shooting and killing a man outside their family mansion.
The young man, Tigran Khachatrian, and one of his father’s bodyguards, Zarzand Nikoghosian, were arrested following the June 1 shootout in Goris, a town in the southeastern Syunik province. They both were charged with murder and illegal arms possession.
Suren Khachatrian’s men clashed with Avetik Budaghian, a 43-year-old local businessman, and his brother Artak for still unclear reasons. Avetik was shot dead while Artak, who is an Armenian army colonel, was seriously wounded in the incident that led to Khachatrian’s sacking by the Armenian government.
The Armenian Defense Ministry said that its Investigative Department, which is handling the high-profile criminal case, has concluded that the gunshots fired by Khachatrian and Nikoghosian constituted legitimate self-defense. Military investigators have therefore dropped the charges leveled against the two suspects and released them from pre-trial detention, a ministry statement said.
The statement said nothing about the illegal arms possession charge. Police confiscated large quantities of weapons from the governor’s villa immediately after the shootings.
The investigators have said along that the Budaghian brothers mounted an “armed assault” on Khachatrian’s residence. They brought corresponding charges against Artak Budaghian in July. The latter strongly denies them.
The release of the two suspects was condemned as a “state crime” by the Budaghians’ father Emil. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), he said President Serzh Sarkisian thus ignored his appeals to ensure an objective probe of the case. Artak Budaghian’s lawyer, Hayk Alumian, also deplored the unexpected development.
But Ruben Sahakian, the lawyer for Tigran Khachatrian, hailed his client’s release as a triumph of justice that came despite what he described as media “hysteria” against the ex-governor’s family. He said journalists critical of the Khachatrian family must now “go to church and thank God for the fact that justice has finally prevailed in this country.”
Armenian human rights campaigners claimed the opposite, however, saying that the release of the ex-governor’s son highlights impunity enjoyed by government-linked individuals and their cronies and relatives. “They [the authorities] just showed that they don’t give a damn about public opinion,” said Zhanna Aleksanian of the Journalists for Human Rights watchdog. Aleksanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that she believes Sarkisian personally ordered the release of the two men.
The Goris shootout took place just hours after Suren Khachatrian, better known to Armenians as “Liska,” hosted a dinner for several regional dignitaries, including the Budaghian brothers. He reportedly argued with Avetik Budaghian during that party.
The ex-governor, who has a long history of violence, claims to have slept in his house as the two groups of armed men exchanged gunfire at his doorstep. The Budaghian family has dismissed this assertion.
Khachatrian has held sway in Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media outlets have long implicated him and his relatives in violent attacks on local business rivals as well as government critics, including a Syunik newspaper editor whose car was set on fire in 2005. The controversial governor has always denied involvement in such incidents and denounced opposition politicians and pro-opposition media for branding him a crime figure.
Khachatrian, who is a senior member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, risked dismissal in 2008 as he faced an embarrassing government inquiry into a newspaper report that accused him of beating up a teenage boy. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Khachatrian, who was appointed as Syunik governor in 2004 by then President Robert Kocharian, managed to retain his position even after assaulting in a Yerevan hotel lobby in late 2011 a businesswoman who accused him of fraud. Although the incident was captured by a surveillance camera, law-enforcement bodies refused to bring criminal charges against him on the grounds that the woman did not suffer serious physical injuries.
Official results of Armenian elections held over the past decade have shown President Sarkisian and his Republican Party winning more votes in Syunik than in any other part of the country. Critics say this explains why Khachatrian retained his job for so long.
Neither the Republican Party nor the presidential administration reacted to Khachatrian’s threats to “smash the head” of Raffi Hovannisian, Sarkisian’s main challenger in the February 2013 presidential election. The Armenian president, who repeatedly pledged to uphold justice during the presidential race, instead gave a major state award, the Order of Combat Cross, to the governor in May.