By Nane Atshemian
A consular official at the U.S. embassy in Yerevan has been arrested in the United States, accused of accepting hefty kickbacks in return for issuing entry visas to Armenian citizens.
U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans said on Friday that Piotr Zdzislaw Parlej has pleaded guilty to 13 counts of bribery and visa fraud after being expelled from the mission last month.
Officials in Washington said separately that Parlej, 45, was detained on Wednesday and was due to appear before a magistrate in the district of Columbia on Thursday. If convicted of the charges, Parlej faces up to 15 years in prison, and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of the counts.
“It is true that one of our employees has confessed to several charges of visa fraud,” Evans told reporters in Yerevan. “He has been indicted yesterday in Washington DC on 13 counts.”
“I would like to emphasize that he was not a full American diplomat. He was a consular associate … I have sent him back to the United States where he now faces trial,” he added.
In a joint statement, two senior officials from the U.S. Departments of Justice and State said the accusations cover the period “from in or before April 2004, through on or about January 13, 2005.” “The indictment alleges six specific instances in which Parlej took cash bribes of up to $10,000 each, in exchange for issuing visas irrespective of whether the applicants were qualified to receive them,” the statement said.
“A United States consular official who violates those rules for personal financial gain undermines the integrity of our visa application and review process, and erodes public trust in our consular officials around the world,” the chief Columbia district attorney, Kenneth Wainstein, was quoted as saying.
In a separate press release, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan revealed that Armenian law-enforcement authorities were also involved in the uncovering of the alleged bribe-taking. “We wish to thank the Armenian authorities for their cooperation in this investigation and in particular would like to commend the National Security Service of Armenia for their invaluable assistance,” it said.
It was not clear what specific forms that assistance took and whether Parlej was caught red-handed. The Washington attorney’s statement said, without elaborating, that he had “various co-conspirators.”
The Armenian security service has made no statements in connection with the affair. Its press service did not answer phone calls on Friday.
Thousands of Armenians seek entry into the U.S. every year. Many of them travel there in search of employment, swelling the ranks of one of the largest Armenian communities abroad. According to the U.S. consulate in Yerevan, nearly 12,000 Armenian nationals applied for a visa in 2003. Only 5,000 of them were granted one.