By Emil Danielyan
Armenian prosecutors lost on Thursday another court battle stemming from their refusal to launch criminal proceedings in connection with an alleged misappropriation of business assets claimed by a U.S. businessman of Armenian origin.
Armenia’s Review Court upheld a December ruling by a lower-level court that obliged the Office of Prosecutor-General to press fraud charges against the Yerevan-based representative of businessman George Nazarian.
The Armenian citizen, Grigor Igitian, is the formal owner of a photo shop and two buildings currently constructed in downtown Yerevan. Najarian insists that in reality the lucrative property belongs to him and that he registered it in Igitian's name in 1996 because Armenian law at the time did not allow foreigners to own land in the country. He claims to have been defrauded by Igitian, a charge denied by the latter.
The prosecutors have twice investigated the fraud allegations but stopped short of bringing charges against Igitian, citing a lack of evidence. However, they were ordered to reopen the criminal investigation by a court of first stance in Yerevan last December after a lawsuit filed by Najarian.
The prosecutors appealed the verdict and are now expect to take their case to the Court of Appeals, Armenia’s highest body of criminal justice. The Review Court handed down the ruling after repeatedly postponing hearings on the case.
“I welcome the verdict and hope that the Prosecutor-General’s Office will reopen the inquiry,” Najarian’s attorney, Ashot Poghosian, told RFE/RL.
In their court arguments, Najarian's lawyers charged that the prosecutors have until now acted like Igitian’s defense lawyers by violating Armenian laws, misleading their superiors and intimidating key witnesses. They accused them of covering up the “large-scale fraud.”
Representatives of the law-enforcement agency rejected Najarian’s fraud allegations but declined to speak in the court, submitting only a written statement to the panel of three judges.
Igitian likewise denies that the U.S. citizen invested $500,000 in the properties and appointed him as their figurehead owner in 1996 pending the softening of the land ownership restriction. The English-language university lecturer claims that he himself made most of the investments. He says he saved hundreds of thousands of dollars working as an interpreter and receiving a large inheritance several years ago.
Najarian, who has done extensive charitable work in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh for the last 15 years, and his wife Carolann alleged a high-level government interest in the affair in an article published by Armenian-American newspaper late last year. “We had information that these investigators were following orders from persons within the government who stand to benefit from expropriating these properties from us,” they wrote.
The couple also denounced Armenia’s law-enforcement apparatus as “a system wrought with deceit and corruption.”