By Heghine Buniatian
Ara Abrahamian, an Armenian-born Russian businessman, said Monday that he is close to sealing a “mutually beneficial” deal with the government of Equatorial Guinea which will lead to the release of six Armenians controversially jailed in the west African country.
“We are already reaching an agreement with the authorities and trying to put it on paper,” he told reporters in Yerevan. “We can say that the likelihood of the Armenian pilots’ release is great. Actually, it’s a matter of time.”
Abrahamian, who has close ties with the Russian government, has been trying to secure their liberation since the beginning of this year, after the failure of similar efforts by Armenia’s government. He visited Equatorial Guinea last month and met with its longtime President Teodoro Obiang Nguema as well as other senior officials. His representatives have since remained in the capital Malabo to continue the negotiations.
The six Armenians are the aircrew of an Armenian transport plane that was hired by a German airfreight company over a year ago to ship cargo to the oil-rich nation. They were arrested in March 2004 and sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment on November 26 along with a group of South African nationals on charges of involvement in a reported plot to topple Obiang.
The pilots, backed by the Armenian government and their German employer, pleaded not guilty to the charges. Amnesty International condemned their trial as “grossly unfair.”
Abrahamian refused to disclose any details of his promised deal with Obiang’s regime. “The offer we have made is hard to turn down because it is beneficial both for us and the government of that country,” he said without elaborating.
In a statement issued on April 13, Amnesty International warned that the Armenians and more than 60 other prisoners kept in Malabo’s notorious Black Beach jai will risk starving to death unless “immediate action” is taken to alleviate their plight. The London-based watchdog said prison conditions worsened drastically in the last six weeks, with food rations cut from a daily cup of rice to almost nothing.
But Abrahamian, who leads a Moscow-based organization that seeks to represent Armenians around the world, insisted that the pilots’ life is not at risk. “I saw the guys,” he said. “They were not well, but now their health is not at risk.”
“I’m doing my best to ensure that they are kept in slightly better conditions than other prisoners,” he added.