By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities have done little to combat illegal trafficking of hundreds and possibly thousands of Armenian women abroad for sexual exploitation despite their persistent claims to the contrary, according to the findings of a nearly year-long journalistic investigation.
Edik Baghdasarian, a prominent investigative reporter, and Ara Manoogian, an Armenian-American activist, have suggested that senior law-enforcement officials in Yerevan are maintaining close ties with Armenian prostitution rings in the United Arab Emirates for personal gain. They allege in particular that some of those officials regularly visit Dubai to collect bribes from the local Armenian pimps and women trafficked by them.
“We have compelling evidence we collected there that suggests individuals within the Armenian government and in high-ranking positions are directly involved with this ring,” says Manoogian.
The two men have repeatedly visited the Gulf Arab nation over the past year, interviewing scores of Armenian prostitutes and secretly videotaping glitzy night clubs where they usually find clients. Their detailed accounts of the Dubai sex business were presented in a series of reports that appeared recently in the Hetq.am online publication of Baghdasarian’s Association of Investigative Journalists. Baghdasarian has promised to make more scandalous revelations in a separate documentary which is expected to be aired by an Armenian TV channel next month.
The Hetq.am reports suggest that there could be as many as 2,000 Armenian prostitutes working in the UAE and other Gulf states at present. Virtually all of them are said to have traveled there with fake Russian passports provided by their traffickers in Moscow. UAE law forbids foreign single women below the age of 31 from entering the country. The documents overstating the women’s age thus allow prostitution ringleaders to easily flout this restriction.
Baghdasarian and Manoogian claim that the UAE authorities are well aware of that but turn a blind eye because they too have a share in the business involving tends of thousands of women from across the former Soviet Union. “This is a well-organized business with a rigid chain of command,” says Baghdasarian.
Most of the trafficked women come from poor families and were lured into prostitution with a promise of quick money. “I couldn't find a job [in Armenia],” one of them, a divorced woman from a village in southern Armenia, is quoted as saying in a Hetq article. “Wherever I went, they asked me to sleep with them before they would offer me a job. We Armenians are like that - if you're divorced, then that's it, they can think anything about you.”
The prostitutes reportedly have to give the Armenian pimps in Dubai a large part of their income. According to the authors of the inquiry, many of them are forced to have sex 10 or even more clients a day in order to secure the minimum daily sum required by their “employers.” They say that the Armenian pimps are in turn subordinated to a Syrian-born Arab known as Assad. He is said to have strong connections with officials at the UAE’s police and immigration departments.
Scores of Armenian women are also thought to have been trafficked to other parts of the Middle East, notably Turkey. The phenomenon dating back to the mid-1990s came under public spotlight in 2002 when the U.S. State Department placed Armenia in the so-called "Tier3" group of states which Washington believes are doing little to tackle illegal cross-border transport of human beings.
The embarrassing criticism led the Armenian authorities to take what the State Department later described as "significant efforts" to reduce the scale of human trafficking. They set up a special inter-ministerial commission tasked with tackling the problem. It also began to be publicly discussed by government officials and non-governmental organizations.
Armenia was removed from the U.S. blacklist and upgraded to the "Tier 2" category in 2003. "The Government of Armenia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so," the State Department said in a report last year.
Baghdasarian disagrees. “The prosecutors say they are combating the problem, but I don’t see any action,” he says.
Armenia’s Office Prosecutor-General rarely launch criminal investigations into suspected instances of human trafficking. Only two such cases were reported last year. Although Armenia’s new Criminal Code enacted in 2003 raised the maximum jail term for trafficking from two to eight years, court rulings against individuals convicted of related charges have remained lenient.
One such person, Amalia “Nano” Mnatsakanian, was arrested in the UAE on an Interpol warrant and extradited to Armenia in March 2004. She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by a Yerevan court last August only to be released less than two months later. Another reputed pimp, Marietta Musaelian, is expected to released soon, well before completing her two-year sentence.
Baghdasarian says most of their “colleagues” remain at large and have little to worry about. As recently as last February he sent a young female journalist posing as a prospective prostitute to two women known to be involved in a Dubai prostitution ring. Their conversation in a Yerevan apartment was secretly recorded.
"I've sent more than a hundred people to the Emirates,” one of the women called Sirush told the undercover journalist. “They were from 16 to 27. I don't take anyone older.”
“It'll cost me $3,000-$4,000 to get you to Dubai. You'll be met in Moscow and they'll get you a new passport. After that you'll go to Dubai,” she added.
“If you go there, you won't want to come back,” said the other pimp, Nelli.
Andranik Mirzoyan, head of the investigations department at the Prosecutor-General’s Office, claimed on March 16 that most traffickers remain unpunished because they enjoy government protection in the UAE. "There [in Dubai] a pimp is protected by the police and by the 'authorities' [criminal gangs]. They have their own laws, and there are some problems," he complained after a meeting of senior prosecutors that discussed the problem.
Mirzoyan also told reporters that a team of Armenian investigators traveled to Dubai in February to try to “persuade” Armenian prostitutes to return home. But Baghdasarian insists that the officials' actions were less than altruistic.
“We have recordings of girls in Dubai saying that they gave thousands of dollars to a particular employee of the prosecutor’s office. We know their names, where and when they met.” he says, adding that such visits from Yerevan have been regular.
Citing unnamed Dubai prostitutes, Baghdasarian wrote last month that one of those officials, Aristakes Yeremian, cut a deal with at least one Armenian pimp. The Prosecutor-General’s Office has still not reacted to the allegation.
But Yeremian, who is a senior investigator at the law-enforcement agency, rejected the charges on Wednesday. “Such a thing is impossible,” he told RFE/RL. Yeremian admitted meeting several Armenian pimps in Dubai “for questioning” but denied extorting any money from them through blackmail and arrest threats.
Visiting Yerevan last July, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev announced the arrest a “criminal group” of Armenians in Moscow who allegedly transported young women from Armenia to the UAE via Russia. The suspects were immediately extradited to the Armenian authorities to face prosecution, he said.
“They were flown to Yerevan and set free a month later,” says Baghdasarian. “I asked one law-enforcement official why they were released. He said they probably paid a lot of money.”
That there is lots of money involved is obvious from figures provided to Hetq by the Armenian Central Bank. They show that the total amount of cash remittances wired to Armenia from the UAE totaled almost $8.8 million last year, up from just $1.6 million registered in 2001. With Armenian imports from the UAE by far exceeding exports in 2004, a large part of that money may well have been generated by the prostitution networks.
Manoogian, who runs a charity and small businesses in Nagorno-Karabakh, believes that many of the trafficking victims can be repatriated and reintegrated into Armenian society. He is currently lobbying international and Diaspora organizations to finance a special rehabilitation center for them. “Right now we are in the process of putting together a rehabilitation program,” he says.
But Baghdasarian is skeptical about the effort: “Ninety percent of those women knew what awaits them in Dubai and are earning much more than they could do here.”
(Hetq.am snapshot: An Armenian pimp offering two trafficking victims to potential clinets on a Dubai street.)