The Gyumri Killings: Beyond the Legal Arguments

Houry Mayissian
More than a week since the Gyumri killings, the city and Armenia at large are still struggling to come to terms with the heinous crime that wiped out an entire family. As the massacre’s youngest victim, six-month-old Seryozha Avetisyan succumbed to his injuries on Monday, many questions remain unanswered; chief among them – what happens to the culprit?
Valery Permyakov, a Russian soldier stationed at the 102nd Russian Military Base in Gyumri, is said to be responsible for the multiple killings. Permyakov was captured by Russian border guards trying to flee across the Armenian-Turkish border and remains in Russian custody to this day.
Immediately after the tragic event, angry protests broke out in Gyumri, demanding that Permyakov be handed over to the Armenian justice system. However, announcements made by Russian and Armenian officials indicate that this is unlikely to be the case.
A statement by Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor General first cited the Russian Constitution that bars the extradition of a Russian citizen to a foreign country. Questions about how and why Permyakov appeared and remains in Russian custody aside, it is incomprehensible why a representative of Armenia’s justice system would refer to the Russian Constitution in relation to a crime committed on Armenian soil.
Facing mounting pressure from the public while in Gyumri, Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan then gave assurances that Permyakov will be tried in Armenia but shied away from promising that he will be prosecuted in an Armenian court. The best he could offer protestors in Gyumri was a promise to appeal to his Russian counterpart asking for Permyakov’s handover. It is unclear what steps Kostanyan has taken since.
The 1997 bilateral treaty between Russia and Armenia that established the terms under which the Russian 102nd military base is stationed in Gyumri, states that soldiers who commit crimes outside the confines of the base are subject to Armenian law. The same treaty upholds Russian jurisdiction over crimes committed within Russian military facilities in Armenia, a clause that has been cited as one justification for not handing over Permyakov, given that the latter also deserted his base just before allegedly committing the crime.
In essence, however, the criminal’s handover is not about what legal frameworks apply and which loopholes can be exploited. It is about Armenia’s leadership (finally) speaking out for its people; it is about respect between two nations; it is a matter of pride, dignity and justice for a nation too often overlooked by its own government and too often coerced by its more powerful neighbor.
While the country mourns, protests and demands answers, the silence of its leaders has been deafening. Save for a few meagre announcements that expressed condolences and urged restraint, the President, the government, the political parties have, by and large, been silent; silent and absent.
There has been no condemnation, no outrage, no genuine sympathy. Attempts to declare a national day of mourning have been dismissed. And when the people of Gyumri bid farewell to the Avetisyan family at a sombre funeral service, there was no one standing by their side to share their pain and to assure them that Armenian citizens are safe in their homeland, that answers will be provided, that this won’t happen again in a city that has already suffered so much loss.
If the intent of the silence has been to not upset Russia, ironically it has proved counter-productive as evidenced by the protests held outside the Russian diplomatic representations in Yerevan and Gyumri as well as the Military Base itself. If it has simply been a matter of incompetence, then sadly, that’s a tragedy of its own.
The Armenian government needs to speak up for its people. Rather than citing the Russian constitution, it has to do everything in its power to ensure Permyakov’s handover. Rather than curbing protests, it should provide the people with a sense of security and assurances that justice will be served. Whatever the end result may be, the people of Armenia need to know that their government made every effort possible on their behalf.
The Russian government too has a role to play. At this point in time in particular, it needs to demonstrate respect for the wishes of a deeply wounded nation, an ally and neighbour, and hand over the soldier responsible for the killings without any further delay.
It is not the first time that a citizen of one country is found guilty of committing a crime in the other. In July 2013, Hrachya Harutyunyan, a citizen of Armenia working as a truck driver in Russia, crashed his vehicle into a bus, resulting in the unfortunate death of 18 people. Shortly after his arrest, Harutyunyan was brought before a Russian courtroom dressed in women’s clothing, the humiliating photos causing much anger in Armenia. Harutyunyan is currently serving a six-year prison sentence in Russia. It is impossible to not compare the action and reaction in each case.
No, the handling of the Permyakov case is not about jurisdiction. For the people of Armenia, it is about instilling justice and restoring the dignity of Armenia. It is about ensuring that Armenia’s relationship with Russia be based on mutual respect and understanding – not merely on a cold calculation of national interests.

"The Armenian Weekly," January 20, 2015

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