The heart-wrenching news of the murder of a family of seven in Gyumri, Armenia has shocked the Armenian nation and led to mass protests and candlelight vigils in the days that followed. In a country that enjoys relative security and has the lowest intentional homicide rate in the region, the murder of the Avetisyan family has raised a multitude of questions – primarily because the confessed murderer was a Russian soldier stationed at the local Russian base.
On January 12, 2015, the Avetisyan family – composed of a husband and wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old granddaughter – were found dead due to gunshot and stab wounds inside their home. The Avetisyans’ grandson, six-month-old Seryozha Avetisyan, was found alive at the scene and transported to a local hospital. Unfortunately, after several days of fighting for young Seryozha’s life, the doctors were unable to save him. The infant died on January 19, 2015.
While local police were piecing together the details of the murder, they found several belongings of interest inside the Avetisyan residence: military boots with the initials V.P., a rucksack, a Kalashnikov rifle, and a bayonet. Following the order of National Police Chief Vladimir Gasparyan, a case was opened under Article 104 of Armenia’s criminal code and an extensive investigation was launched. Eventually, investigators corroborated their evidence with the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri and discovered that a conscript by the name of Valery Permyakov had deserted his post. They concluded that Permyakov was the culprit in the crime.
While all roads leading to and from Gyumri were closed, a massive manhunt was undertaken throughout the nation as President Serzh Sargsyan met with law enforcement officials to discuss the case and necessary steps moving forward. Permyakov, a 19-year-old native of the small Siberian town of Chita, was found hours later by Russian border soldiers, wearing civilian clothing, and attempting to cross the Armenian border into Turkey. He was transferred back to the military base and is being held in solitary confinement by Russian authorities.
According to investigators, Permyakov confessed to murdering the Avetisyan family and stated that he had entered the Avetisyans’ home at 6AM, armed with a loaded automatic rifle. He allegedly asked for a glass of water and then began to shoot and kill six members of the family. When the rifle became jammed, he turned to his bayonet to stab six-month-old Seryozha.
Permyakov currently remains in Russian military custody while Russian and Armenian investigators continue to gather information. On January 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin called to express his condolences to Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan. Russia’s Ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, had offered condolences earlier and promised an objective and comprehensive investigation into the murder. His assurances of objectivity did not resonate well with a segment of Armenian society who saw this as an attempt by the Kremlin to extend its influence into a sovereign nation. The scenario quickly shifted from grief to anger, and even spurred mass protests when Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanyan announced that the case would be under the jurisdiction of Russian authorities.
Within hours, thousands of protesters took to the Russian Embassy in Yerevan and demanded that Permyakov be handed over to Armenian authorities to be tried in Armenian courts. A similar scene unfolded in Gyumri, where young men attempted to storm the Russian military base with demands to hand over the conscript to Armenian law enforcement.
Both sides have offered arguments about which legal jurisdiction Permyakov falls under. Some argue that Permyakov should be tried by the Russians, in compliance with Article 61.1 of the Russian constitution, which states that “a citizen of Russia may not be extradited to another state.” On the other hand, Article 4 of the status of forces agreement between Armenia and Russia states that crimes committed on Armenian territory by a soldier of the military base falls under Armenian jurisdiction, with a few exceptions.
Though it’s too early to tell how the case will proceed, according to Kostanyan, the Gyumri Massacre case is subject to a “double crime prosecution.” This means that the criminal case involving Permyakov is subject to be filed as a military criminal case for desertion with a weapon under Russian jurisdiction, and also as a crime of seven accounts of murder committed on Armenian territory under Armenian law. It seems that criminal proceedings have been undertaken domestically as public defender Tamara Yayloyan was appointed to represent Permyakov in Armenian courts. However, she refused to further represent Permyakov after being present during his interrogation process. According to Yayloyan, Permyakov “did not leave an impression of a mentally ill person.”
The mounting tension that has been the result of this uncommonly heinous crime has also spread into social media, where misinformation has started to permeate. Some have resorted to conspiracy theories while others have created groups on the Russian social media website VKontakte with the hashtag #JeSuisValera. This group and hashtag were modeled after the trending #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, created to demonstrate solidarity with Charlie Hebdo after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
It’s not difficult to decipher, however, that these groups’ primary focus is to politicize the situation in Gyumri by tying it to the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict. For example, there is a hashtag accompanied by a picture of Permyakov with the ribbon of St. George, flag of New Russia, and anti-Maidan images. The ribbon of Saint George was perceived as the highest military decoration that a soldier may receive although, today, the ribbon is frequently associated with Russian nationalism, while the flag of New Russia was revived as an anti-Maidan and pro-separatist flag.
A look at these accounts suggests that the overwhelming majority of them were created to show that the same Russians who support their country in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are also supportive of their psychopathic soldier. For example, the majority of these accounts and their postings prior to the Gyumri massacre were either inactive or entirely associated with the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. The shameless play on Armenian sentiments aside, this digital turn of events is a reminder about remaining vigilant when it comes to posting alarming but unverified information. Samvel Martirosyan, a leading media expert based in Yerevan, has analyzed most of these inconsistencies in his blog (Armenian.)
Understandably, the frustration for most Armenians lies in a matter of principle: that a crime committed on Armenian soil be prosecuted in Armenia. It is the right of the Armenian government and of the people, as part of a sovereign state, to make this demand. It is also reasonable for Armenians to require that the Russian military base in Gyumri meet the highest caliber of psychological evaluation for soldiers stationed there. There is no excuse for someone whose job it is to protect the population of a country to turn on that country’s people and murder any of its citizens in cold blood. Moving forward, these are basic standards that Armenians should expect to be met as they try to make sense of this unprecedented tragedy.