YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—An Armenian businessman was hospitalized over the weekend after an attack which he said was led by Ruben Hayrapetian, a government-linked and reputedly violent tycoon heading the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA).
Arsen Avetisian, a majority shareholder in the country’s largest airline, Air Armenia, was reportedly assaulted near an infamous Yerevan restaurant where security guards working for Hayrapetian beat a man to death three years ago.
Speaking in a Yerevan hospital where he is recovering from a broken nose and other injuries, Avetisian said the violence occurred during his meeting with Hayrapetian held at the FFA Football Academy on Saturday.
“Hayrapetian grabbed my hand, and when I tried to free my hand everybody else started hitting me,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I didn’t see who was hitting me as I lay on the ground.”
“They then took me to another place. Ruben Hayrapetian was there and he continued to talk to me,” he said, while lying on a hospital bed.
The businessman declined to give a reason for the attack. He said he would share more details “in the coming days.”
Meanwhile, Avetisian’s, wife, Izabella Melkumian, has published an open letter to President Serzh Sarkissian saying that Hayrapetian and his bodyguards kidnapped Avetisian after the beating. She claimed they demanded that the businessman managing Air Armenia, a private carrier, sign a statement certifying that he owes a substantial amount of money to the powerful oligarch.
“I appealed to law-enforcement bodies but am worried about the safety of my husband and other members of our family,” Melkumian said, pleading with Sarkissian to ensure their protection by the state.
Armenian police said later in the day that they are investigating the allegations. A police spokesperson refused to divulge any details of the inquiry.
According to News.am, Hayrapetian and two of his bodyguards were questioned by police investigators. The tycoon refused to comment when contacted by the online publication. Neither he nor his aides answered phone calls from RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Other Armenian media outlets linked the violent incident with Air Armenia’s outstanding debts to another local airline, Taron-Avia, from which it is said to have leased an aircraft until suspending its operations late last year. One publication suggested that Taron-Avia’s owner “ceded” the debt to Hayrapetian.
Air Armenia, which has yet to resumed its flight services, also reportedly has unpaid debts to several Armenian banks. Avetisian was assaulted one day after a Ukrainian investment fund, which recently bought a 49 percent stake in Air Armenia, announced that it had invested over $68 million in the troubled airline.
Zhanna Aleksanian, a veteran human rights writer, believes that Avetisian’s beating highlights a broader problem in Armenia. “The oligarchs who are members of [President] Serzh Sarkissian’s inner circle enjoy impunity,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “This is why such incidents recur. Only Serzh Sarkissian can tell how long this will continue.”
The incident over the weekend will inevitably rekindle memories of a brutal June 2012 assault on several Armenian army medics who dined at Yerevan’s Harsnakar restaurant, owned by Hayrapetian’s family. One of them, Vahe Avetian, died while two others were seriously injured after arguing with men working at the restaurant.
The death of Avetian, a 35-year-old father of three, shocked the nation, sparking a series of angry street protests by hundreds of civic activists. They demonstrated outside the restaurant as well as Hayrapetian’s nearby villa against what they saw as a manifestation of impunity enjoyed by government-linked oligarchs.
The outcry forced Hayrapetian to resign from his seat in Armenia’s parliament and apologize to Avetian’s family. But he stayed on as chairman of the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA), denying any involvement in the beating. Some media outlets, however, have accused him of sanctioning or even ordering the violence.
In March 2014, six men thought to be Hayrapetian’s bodyguards, were convicted of Avetian’s murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison. An Armenian appeals court upheld the verdict three months later.
Hayrapetian continued to face allegations of violent conduct even after the Harsnakar incident. The oligarch was accused in November 2012 of attacking a doctor working for FC Pyunik, a football club controlled by him. In 2014, he allegedly verbally and physically abused a Pyunik player during a football match in Yerevan. Hayrapetian denied those allegations through the FFA’s press service.
The oligarch, who is a senior member of President Sarkissian’s Republican Party of Armenia, has also been accused by Armenian opposition groups of politically motivated violence in the past. He is notorious for insulting journalists.