BY SAMSON MARTIROSYAN
From The Armenian Weekly
The village of Proshian, situated in Kotayk province, just outside of Yerevan, has a population of about 5,000 people. The Proshian Brandy Factory, which is famous for the high-quality grapes and apricots it uses, is right in the village center. The villagers of Proshian lived a relatively quiet life up until four months ago, when an unknown assailant gunned down their mayor.
On April 2, Hrach Muradian, 50, was shot dead. His body was found at 9 a.m. in front of the municipality building. The bullet had hit him straight in the head, leaving no chance for survival.
Born to a repatriate family from Syria, Muradian was an active member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and had been re-elected mayor of Proshian three terms since 2005. Muradian was also a Karabagh War veteran and one of the founders of the Shushi Special Unit, and was awarded the Artshakh Martakan Khach. He was married, and had two sons and two daughters.
Muradian’s murder was a real shock not only for Proshian, but for the entire country. On April 4, a candlelight vigil was held near Yerevan’s Opera House. Many high-ranking members of the ARF, as well as leaders of the Sardarabat movement and other civil activists, were present that day. Many came with posters, condemning his death.
The ARF immediately qualified the murder as a politically driven, intentional assassination, and said it was evidence that no one’s security was guaranteed. The Armenian National Congress (ANC) also condemned the murder and stressed the motive was clearly political—a consequence of the environment created by a corrupt and autocratic system. Jirayr Sefilyan, the leader of the Sardarapat movement, said the murder was the result of the criminal mindset and atmosphere of impunity that surrounds the ruling elite. Meanwhile, Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovhannisian, who was present at Muradian’s funeral, said it was a blow to Armenia’s statehood, to the Armenian nation, and to every Armenian.
According to the ARF and many Proshian villagers, during Muradian’s tenure, tensions were high between the ARF and the ruling Republican Party (RPA). Muradian was well respected and had managed to gain the trust of the majority of the population, allowing him to win local elections and beat RPA candidates time and again. In September 2012, his rival was RPA member Artur Muradian. When Hrach Muradian won the elections, the situation deteriorated. The village became divided into two camps: those who affiliated themselves with the RPA, and those (the majority of the population) who supported Hrach Muradian. Even during Muradian’s post-election celebration party, a skirmish broke out between his loyalists and a group of men who were reportedly RPA supporters.
The mayor and his family realized they were in harm’s way—even before 2012. His family says that in 2010, a hay stack was deliberately set aflame in an attempt to burn down their farm. Firemen did later confirm that the fire was an act of arson. In 2010, another grave incident shook the mayor when someone attempted to kidnap his nephew. That attempt ended in a scuffle. According to Melanya Arustamyan, Muradian’s family lawyer, when the mayor emerged from his residence following the kidnapping attempt, someone shot at his nephew and his car. The mayor himself later faced charges following speculation that he had shot at his own car as an act of provocation.
While the ARF, and many other political actors, qualified Muradian’s murder as a politically driven assassination, it was apparent that the accusations and hints indirectly pointed at the RPA. That party did not issue an official statement; when the media urged some of its representatives to react, they denied any involvement.
The story of this murder is marked with ambiguous events. And the greater the controversy it caused, the greater the bewilderment and anger among the people.
On April 4, police announced that they had detained the Petrosyan brothers—Arthur, 33, and Arayik, 31—after interrogating dozens of people and searching several houses. The next day, news spread that Arayik Petrosyan faced charges and criminal proceedings under Articles 104, 2.2 (murder of the person of close relative of the latter, due to service and public duty of the person) and 235, 1 (illegal procurement, transportation, keeping or carrying of weapons, explosives or explosive devices, except smoothbore long-barrel hunting guns, ammunition) of Armenia’s criminal code. The case was placed under the jurisdiction of the Chief Investigation Department of the Police for Particularly Important Cases. A day later, the Kentron, Norq-Marash Court of First Instance ordered Arayik’s arrest.
As the investigation continued, police presented their main piece of evidence: traces of metallic antimony (a metalloid used in the production of bullets) on Petrosyan’s sleeves and face, and in the car he had used on the day of the murder. Once such a bullet is fired, it leaves behind a particular trace. This remains the main evidence against Petrosyan.
Petrosyan’s lawyer, Givi Hovhannisyan, lodged a complaint with the Court of Appeals asking to review the decision to arrest Petrosyan. Hovhannisyan also repeatedly claimed that the investigation was carried out in an inappropriate manner: Traces of antimony cannot be considered hard evidence against his client, he argued, as the police had not proven that they had come from a gunshot. He also said that the expiration date of the antimony had not been noted in the examination.
According to Hovhannisyan, antimony is used not only in bullet production, but also in many other household chemicals, and is even found in nature. He also argued that whereas a bullet leaves behind traces of other chemicals, the examination report had only mentioned antimony. Petrosyan’s wife later testified that he had been working on his car for several days before the murder—which could result in traces of antimony.
The police have another clue: Petrosyan was seen driving a white Lada Niva the day of the crime, the same type of car that was spotted near the murder scene. Hovhannisyan, however, argues that Petrosyan’s car was broken down and that he had to borrow his friend’s car, a white Niva.
Petrosyan’s wife testified that on the day of the murder, her husband took their children to school at around 8:20 a.m., came back at 8:30 a.m., and stayed home until about 9:20 a.m., when he left to go to work. She claims her neighbors saw him.
There are other curious factors as well. Neither the murder weapon, nor the cartridge case have been found. When police searched the Petrosyan brothers’ houses, they found a hunting gun, but subsequent examination proved that the bullet had come from a different gun. Also, nobody seems to have heard the sound of a gunshot, hinting at the use of a silencer. Many argue that if Muradian was the victim of a drive-by shooting, the car involved would have been spotted as it drove away. Yet, nobody saw a car, except for the white Niva that was later spotted by police in the area. If Muradian was shot in the head from a distance, then the killer was likely a professional hit-man. Petrosyan doesn’t fit the bill, since he is not a professional shooter, he physically cannot be placed at the murder scene, and has no witnesses against him.
There are also numerous accounts that describe Petrosyan and Muradian as having good relations. In fact, Arayik Petrosyan could enter the mayor’s office without registering in advance. Many have said that there were no conflicts between the two.
As mentioned, the police also detained Arayik’s brother Artak, later released him, and detained him again. He is currently in custody. Artak is facing charges of hooliganism. According to police, he was present at the September 2012 skirmish that followed Muradian’s election victory. The case was closed over the absence of corpus delicti, but the prosecutor’s office re-launched it. Artak Petrosyan denies he was there. The case is now under the jurisdiction of the Chief Department of Investigation, even though cases of hooliganism are, as a rule, not investigated by this department. Both family members and the lawyer insist that this was done deliberately to create an artificial link between the 2012 event and the 2013 murder, and to then prove that a confrontation between the Petrosyans and Muradian had started in September 2012.
On April 17, the brothers’ father wrote an open letter to President Serge Sarkisian, Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepyan, and Chief of Police Vova Gasparyan. In his letter, he thoroughly explained what had transpired and demanded that the investigation be placed under their direct control. He asked that they do everything to guarantee maximum transparency and to ensure that law enforcement bodies use the law to its fullest to solve this case as soon as possible and relieve his family from anguish.
On April 18, the day of Arayik Petrosyan’s arrest hearing and the decision by the Court of Appeals, many demonstrated in Proshian in support of the brothers. People held posters that read, “Arayik is not guilty,” and “Set them free.” The protesters marched from Proshian to the Court of Appeals, where they waited for the court’s decision.
The Court of Appeals turned down Hovhannisyan’s demands, and upheld the previous decision of Kentron, Norq-Marash Court of First Instance to arrest Petrosyan. His wife and lawyer said they are determined to fight until they clear his name, and are even willing to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if they are unable to reach justice in the Armenian courts.
Two months later, at the end of May, Kentron, Norq-Marash Court of First Instance passed a decision to prolong Petrosyan’s arrest for two more months, at the request of law enforcement bodies. No new evidence was presented; his arrest was again based on the previous evidence of antimony traces on his body and in his car. This caused another wave of anger and rage among many. Hovhannisyan announced that for two months Arayik had not been interrogated.
Two ARF Parliamentary members (MPs), Armen Rustamyan and Aghvan Vardanyan, met with police chief Vova Gasparyan to discuss the murder case and any developments. Gasparyan said he would do everything within his means to ensure that justice is reached and the case is solved. Some, however, believe the opposite to be true; to them, it seems the police and the courts are intent on finding the brothers guilty.
Immediately after the meeting between the police chief and the ARF representatives, the police announced that they would give a reward of $5,000 to any person who could offer significant information regarding the case. The police assured the public that they would protect the identity of the informer. So far, however, no one has responded to their call. Some fear that sooner or later, someone might fabricate information to claim the promised sum, further complicating the investigation.
The brothers’ lawyer has revealed that a new investigation is currently underway, giving cause to doubt the results from the first one. Petrosyan’s arrest term expires in August, and while the findings from the first investigation were made available after only a day, it has been more than two weeks since second investigation ended. Law enforcement may apply to the court to prolong Petrosyan’s term.
With the support of the ARF and its MP, Aghvan Vardanyan, the “Demand Justice for Hrach Muradian” civic movement was created. The main aim of this movement is to achieve justice, and to ensure that the case receives broad coverage by the mainstream media so that the public is informed of any further developments.
Special elections for a new mayor were held in Proshian on July 14. Three candidates vied for the position: Aleksan Aleksanyan, non-partisan; Vova Sahakyan, ARF affiliated; and Artur Muradian, an RPA member. The ARF did not officially back Sahakyan, who was the main opposition runner against the RPA candidate. In a tough competition, the RPA’s Artur Muradian was elected mayor. According to the official election results, he received 1,371 votes against Sahakyan’s 1,241 votes. This election, as with any other election in Armenia, was carried out in an extremely tense environment. The RPA reportedly bribed voters and enlisted the help of law enforcement to secure a win. Both Aleksan Aleksanyan and Vova Sahakyan rejected the election results.
Many now view Artur Muradian’s victory as the RPA’s ultimate objective—a vicious, power-grabbing policy that led to Muradian’s murder and the Petrosyan brothers’ victimization. From the moment Artur Muradian was elected into office, the village of Proshian belonged to the RPA. No one remains to challenge its supremacy.
Just days after the new elections, protesters took to the streets in Proshian to rail against the arrest and detention of the Petrosyan brothers. They submitted a petition with 980 signatures to the prosecutor general, Aghvan Hovsepyan, demanding that the case be revived, the investigation accelerated, and transparency assured. Meanwhile, Arayik Petrosyan’s wife has threatened self-immolation if her husband is found guilty. That potential verdict, she said, would leave their four children without paternal care, and would signify the failure of justice in the country.
In the days following Artur Muradian’s election, 13 local officials resigned in protest. The new mayor, however, did not view this as a problem; as he said, the staff was replaceable. Is there anyone who doubts it? Is there anyone who expected a proper, decent reaction? Surely not, as it is naive to expect a different reaction from a member of the ruling elite.
Unfortunately, the story of this murder and what followed are indicative of the “democratic” processes in place in Armenia. Where there is political will, there is little that stands in the way of its implementation, regardless of the consequences. The executive and judicial branches of power can—and have—easily become tools in the hands of the powerful. The system of checks and balances seems to have been completely forgotten. Law enforcement officials have proven to be mere puppets in a big theatre. And those individuals who oppose the system of impunity are faced with terrible consequences, and no practical guarantees of their fundamental rights.
Sometimes the system is deliberately managed only semi-repressively, as opposed to total repression, thereby giving the semblance of progress where there is none. Most of the time, like in the case of Hrach Muradian’s murder, the system operates in a perfectly repressive manner, with all necessary resources directed against the very existence of the opposition.
The Armenian Weekly will continue following this case very closely to see if it is carried out fairly and in a way that promotes justice.
Two months after the murder, an unknown person(s) defiled a monument at the gravesite of slain mayor Hrach Muradian and Proshian’s many other war veterans. The words “The Spectacle Is Over” (Հանդեսը Վերջացած է) were written across the monument. The type of paint used made it impossible to erase the graffiti. Villagers found those words on the 40th day (քառասունք) after Muradian’s death․ Muradian’s family, along with many others, believe this was done by the real culprits, as their way of celebrating their victory.
This detailed report was prepared by Samson Martirosyan, The Armenian Weekly’s correspondent in Gyumri.