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Cablegate: Crime Spree Prompts Charges of "Criminal State" by Opposition

VZCZCXRO1755
RR RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHYE #0873/01 3081437
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 031437Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY YEREVAN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8217
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 YEREVAN 000873

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/02/2018
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PINS PREL ASEC AM
SUBJECT: CRIME SPREE PROMPTS CHARGES OF "CRIMINAL STATE" BY OPPOSITION

REF: YEREVAN 599 YEREVAN 00000873 001.2 OF 003

SUMMARY

1. (C) A recent string of unconnected violent attacks around Armenia has prompted the opposition to decry the emergence of a "criminal state." Over the October 24-26 weekend, one person was killed in Yerevan, four were killed in the northern city of Spitak, and the recently re-elected mayor of the northern town of Stepanavan was almost knifed to death by his opponent's supporters. About a dozen other people were injured in these attacks, some critically. The motives of each attack remain unclear, with various media speculating on the causes while police launch investigations. In separate, recent attacks in Yerevan, a foreign businessman and the Ukrainian Ambassador were targeted by unknown assailants, apparently as a result of their business and diplomatic engagements. END SUMMARY.

ARMENIA'S BLOODY NORTH

2. (SBU) Late on Friday, October 24, two unrelated attacks occurred in the northern cities of Spitak (population 13,590) and Stepanavan (population 13,930). In Spitak five men were shot in the downtown area in what appears to have been a dispute between rival criminal gangs over unpaid debts. Two died on the scene, two died en route to the hospital, and one survived. Initial reports stated that over a dozen others were injured in the attack. Spitak had just had its mayoral election on October 19, which prompted some local observers to speculate about a political motive to the attack. Human rights activists in the nearby regional capital of Vanadzor dismissed the speculation, however, assuring Emboffs that the killings were related to organized crime disputes.

3. (U) In Stepanavan, an agricultural town located approximately 30 miles to the north of Spitak, the two-term incumbent mayor Sarkis Gharakeshishian escaped death in a knife attack by five or six supporters of his political opponent in the town's October 19 mayoral election that Gharakeshishian won. (NOTE: Gharakeshishian, a Stepanavan native with two three-year terms behind him, will now serve another four years as mayor, making him the longest-serving mayor there since Armenia's independence in 1991. END NOTE.)

4. (U) The attack on Gharakeshishian took place between 10-11 pm in a restaurant he owns on the outskirts of town where he was alone with one other elder man and a member of the restaurant staff. The attackers had called in advance to ascertain his whereabouts, and had apparently been drinking before their arrival. Conflicting reports stated that they had come to protest the firing of one of their relatives by the Mayor, but all of the men have subsequently been identified as disgruntled backers of Seryozha Arakelian, the director of Stepanavan's bread factory who lost to Gharakeshishian in the mayoral election five days before. (NOTE: Arakelian was running as an independent. He netted 2,513 votes to Gharakeshishian's 5,156. END NOTE.) One of the attackers pulled a knife on Gharakeshishian, cut his face, and stabbed him in the shoulder/neck area, apparently in an effort to slit his throat. The mayor then reportedly pulled a gun and shot three of the attackers.

5. (C) All of the wounded were immediately treated in Stepanavan's German-built Red Cross hospital, with the Mayor then being transferred to Vanadzor and then to Yerevan for his injuries, where he reportedly continues to be hospitalized. Police units in riot gear had been placed on the road leading out of town and to the hospital, in an apparent attempt to prevent the attackers' escape. Hospital staff put their fingers to their lips when Poloff asked them what had transpired in the hospital overnight. One of Poloff's long-time acquaintances who works in Stepanavan's police station as an administrator, and who was in the police station on Saturday and Sunday, later told Poloff that the Mayor did not have a permit for his gun, in contradiction of the press statement released by Armenia's Prosecutor-General the following day.

YEREVAN'S VENDETTA MURDER AND DISCOTHEQUE VIOLENCE

6. (SBU) On October 26 in broad daylight in one of Yerevan's central neighborhoods, two young men shot and killed one man, while wounding his companion. After the voluntary surrender of one of the perpetrators, Armenia's Prosecutor General YEREVAN 00000873 002.2 OF 003 described the attack as a revenge murder for the November 2007 killing of the perpetrator's uncle, who was the chairman of the Armenian Association of Hunters and a senior member of the pro-government Prosperous Armenia party. The perpetrator of that crime was never prosecuted, but media reports alleged that law enforcement authorities suspected the victim of the October 26 attack could have been its perpetrator.

7. (SBU) Also over the same weekend, violence broke out in two separate Yerevan discotheques, where a shootout in one of them reportedly left one person wounded. In another night spot, a mass brawl broke out, allegedly prompted by a nephew to President Sargsian. Press reports allege that Sargsian's nephew and companions initiated the brawl that reportedly resulted in serious injuries and the loss of an eye by one of the persons involved in the melee.

OPPOSITION CALLS CRIME SPREE PROOF OF CRIMINAL STATE

8. (SBU) On October 29, the Armenian National Congress led by ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian released a statement condemning the recent violence, declaring that "the latest string of crimes demonstrates that terrorism, laid in the foundation of the criminal regime, is gradually becoming the basis for public relations and an indispensable part of daily life." Referring to the violence in Yerevan and the north over the October 24-26 weekend, the ANC added that "the reason for the increasing criminalization of public life is the apparent permissiveness of a gang state." The ANC stated that the "national law-enforcement agencies are not able to suppress the dangerous criminalization of the public as they do not have any directives to this end and because all the resources of the law-enforcement bodies are directed at fighting the political opposition as per (President) Serzh Sargsian's directives." The ANC added that "the restoration of lawfulness and justice in Armenia is possible only if there is a legitimate government which has taken responsibility before the public."

DUTCH BUSINESSMAN ATTACKED AGAIN

9. (SBU) In a separate, unrelated attack, Hans Boon, the Dutch director of HayPost whose firm (PostBank) won a tender last year to operate and reform the dysfunctional Armenian postal system, was violently assaulted on a Yerevan street while walking home on the evening of October 10. Knocked unconscious for approximately 12 hours before he was discovered by passersby who took him to a local hospital, Boon was subsequently medevaced, and has been in the hospital in the Netherlands since. Boon told a former Embassy employee that the attack could have been an attempted murder. He suffered brain trauma, internal bleeding, heavy injuries to his abdomen, and a broken jaw. The assailants also stole his wallet that had approximately 400 euros and credit cards in it. 10. (SBU) This is the second time Boon has been assaulted this year. The first was in July (reftel), and while there were initial speculations at the time that that attack might have been business-related, the details later made it seem as though it was just a random act. A second such incident strongly suggests something more targeted. Boon and his firm have run into difficulties while trying to clean house at HayPost, attacking internal theft and corruption, and laying off staff. This second, more serious attack could be revenge or intimidation.

UKRAINIAN AMBASSADOR'S APARTMENT RANSACKED

11. (C) Ukraine's Ambassador to Armenia recently shared with the Ambassador that his apartment was broken into on Sunday, October 19. He believed the crime was related to his defying the GOAM's heavy-handed attempts to persuade him to cancel the Holodomyr remembrance event (the 1932 famine that Ukrainians believe was genocide) which he held on Monday, October 20 -- the same day that Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev arrived for his first state visit to Armenia. On the preceding Saturday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had called in the Ukrainian Ambassador where he was told in no uncertain terms that the event had to be cancelled. He refused. On October 19, while he was out, his apartment was broken into, and his personal possessions smashed, and very little was stolen. It took the police over an hour and a half to respond. He told the Ambassador that he believed the crime was an effort to intimidate him before the remembrance YEREVAN 00000873 003.2 OF 003 event. No GOAM official attended the event and Armenia's Public Television (Channel H1) described the memorial event in its evening coverage as "terrible" and "only fit for a circus."

COMMENT

12. (C) Armenia and the city of Yerevan have traditionally been quite safe cities for average citizens and for visiting foreigners. Lawlessness is nothing new in Armenia, particularly in the political, financial and criminal arenas. In recent times, officials from the tax and customs services have been assassinated for unclear reasons. There have also been too-frequent incidents of powerful persons -- oligarchs, generals, and their children, relatives, or bodyguards -- getting involved in sometimes violent confrontations with those who may cross their paths, whether on the highway or in a night club setting, typically with impunity. Such people have been shown most often to be above the law, in their confrontations with average passersby.

13. (C) The various incidents grouped together in this cable have in common their recent timing and the fact they were incidents of violence, but in other respects differ. Purposefully targeted attacks of a foreign businessman or a possibly-targeted home invasion of a foreign diplomat (if that is truly what these events were) seem an entirely new factor in Armenia. The Hans Boon attacks seem particularly suspicious. Given that foreigners are very rarely assaulted in Armenia, for the same man to be attacked twice in four months suggests either strikingly bad security judgment on his part or deliberate targeting. We have more doubt about the Ukrainian Ambassador,s assumption that the burglary of his home was politically-motivated. Economically-motivated burglaries are not too uncommon for expatriates, homes that may be less well-protected than are U.S. Embassy housing, while a government-sponsored raid on an ambassador,s home is far outside the bounds of what we have seen in Armenia before. We plan to look further into these issues in the upcoming weeks, and hope to refine our understanding of whether there is a new pattern of increased lawlessness and politically-motivated violence, or whether this was simply a particularly striking confluence of unrelated events.

YOVANOVITCH

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