Armenia MPs strip opposition leader of immunity


Yerevan (AFP)

Armenian lawmakers on Tuesday stripped the leader of the main opposition party of his parliamentary immunity, hours after police arrested more than 130 people at a protest rally.

Prosperous Armenia, headed by the country's wealthiest politician Gagik Tsarukyan, is the largest party in opposition to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the ex-Soviet Caucasus country.

Earlier Tuesday, lawmakers voted 87 to 0 to allow prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation against Tsarukyan for alleged financial crimes.

Then in a separate vote, the same number of MPs authorised his pre-trial detention as requested by the prosecutor general's office.

Both votes were boycotted by three opposition parties.

Ahead of the vote Tsarukyan took to the parliamentary floor to attack Pashinyan's government over "economic failures" and "mishandling the coronavirus pandemic".

Armenia has a fast-growing outbreak with a total of 17,489 infections. Pashinyan himself recently described the health crisis as "hell."

"You are on the verge of catastrophe," Tsarukyan told the ruling party MPs.

"You only have two or three months until the end of your rule," said the former arm-wrestling champion.

"Tsarukyan is not afraid of anybody," he added, referring to himself in the third person, before walking out of parliament.

He was then summoned for questioning by Armenia's national security service.

Pashinyan, a reformist anti-graft crusader, came to power in 2018 in the wake of mass popular protests and enjoys widespread popularity in Armenia.

Tsarukyan's prosecution is the latest in a series of high-profile anti-corruption cases initiated by his government.

The opposition leader's party controls 25 seats in the 132-member chamber.

The 63-year-old politician faces accusations of running an "illegal gambling business that has deprived the state coffers of some $60 million".

He is also accused of "vote buying" during 2017 parliamentary elections, Armenia's security service has said.

Tsarukyan has denounced the accusations against him as politically motivated and aimed at silencing his criticism of Pashinyan.

- Protests across Yerevan -

Earlier in the day, hundreds of Tsarukyan supporters used trucks and buses to block several streets across the capital Yerevan and staged a rally outside the parliament building.

Police spokesman Ashot Aharonyan told AFP more than 130 protesters had been detained.

The protest came after prosecutors said they wanted to take Tsarukyan into custody pending his trial.

On Sunday, officers of the national security service searched Tsarukyan's house, prompting his supporters to stage a protest rally.

More than 90 supporters were detained.

Mass gatherings are currently banned in Armenia due to a state of emergency imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Pashinyan's government has come under fire for its response to the epidemic, which has overwhelmed hospitals.

Pashinyan said earlier this month he had recovered from the virus after he and his family tested positive.

He came to power two years ago after leading mass protests against veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian and his Republican Party.

He has since led a relentless crusade against graft and initiated sweeping judicial reforms.

Tsarukyan's business empire includes hotels, casinos, shopping malls, and the production of furniture.

He has been the president of Armenia's National Olympic Committee since 2005.