By Emil Danielyan
Armenian law-enforcement authorities remain reluctant to prosecute a Yerevan resident accused of defrauding two prominent Armenian-American philanthropists despite court rulings that recognized the latter as “victims” of an apparent crime.
The attorneys for George Najarian and his wife Carolann accused Armenia’s Office of Prosecutor-General on Tuesday of artificially dragging out its criminal investigation into the alleged misappropriation of real property claimed by the two U.S. citizens. “They are taking all possible and impossible measures to drag out the investigation,” one of the two lawyers, Ashot Poghosian, told RFE/RL.
“In effect, they are not implementing the decision of the courts and requirements of the law,” said the other lawyer, Hrayr Ghukasian.
The case is having a growing resonance in the Armenian community in the United States. Some of its prominent members sympathetic to the Najarians regard it as a litmus test of the Armenian government’s stated commitment to the rule of law and.
The Najarians, who have engaged in extensive charitable work in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh for the past 15 years, have been pushing for a fraud case against their former Yerevan-based representative, Grigor Igitian, for the past two years. Igitian is the formal owner of a photo shop and two buildings currently constructed in downtown Yerevan.
The Najarians, however, insist that in fact the lucrative property belongs to them and that they registered it in Igitian's name in 1996 because Armenian law at the time did not allow foreigners to own land in the country. They claim to have invested $500,000 in the assets.
Igitian says he himself raised most of the money working as an English-language interpreter and receiving a large inheritance several years ago. The prosecutors accepted the explanation last year but were forced to take up the case after losing a court battle with the Diaspora benefactors in April. Armenia’s Court of Appeals upheld at the time two lower court rulings that gave weight to the fraud allegations.
The prosecutors formally reopened the probe on May 18 but did not bring any charges against Igitian. Sources close to the inquiry say they instead questioned and even bullied witnesses whose earlier testimony substantiated the fraud claims. They allegedly threatened to imprison at least one of them.
The Najarians’ lawyers again took the prosecutors to the court last month, demanding that Igitian be formally charged and that they be allowed to be present at the interrogations of the fraud suspect and witnesses. The district court in central Yerevan rejected the demands as “unfounded” on August 16.
Under Armenian law, a criminal inquiry can proceed indefinitely as long as nobody has been charged in connection with it. “It’s been two years since the Najarians began fighting with the prosecutors and with no suspects identified by the prosecutors, only God knows how long this investigation will last,” said Ghukasian. “I am bewildered also because they are not denying that there is sufficient evidence [to prosecute Igitian].”
Meanwhile, the Najarians, who hailed the April court ruling as a “great victory for the judicial system of Armenia,” appear increasingly frustrated with the latest turn of events. They have initiated a campaign of open letters to President Robert Kocharian and other senior government officials. A sample letter, already signed by some U.S. citizens of Armenian descent, demands an end to “the corrupt practices of the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office which have, in effect, led to the expropriation of their investments and are causing Armenia to lose face internationally.”
“Armenia’s top law enforcement officials cannot be involved in unethical and illegal practices if Armenia is to be considered a democracy,” reads the letter.
The corruption allegations were effectively dismissed by a senior prosecutor on Tuesday, however. “If there are concrete facts of corruption in this case, you should appeal to me personally,” Mihran Minasian, head of a special anti-corruption unit within the Prosecutor-General’s Office, told reporters in Yerevan. “I will study them thoroughly and respond to you as soon as possible.”
“But generally speaking, the fact that a particular prosecuting structure finds a positive or negative solution to an issue alone doesn’t mean it is definitely corrupt,” Minasian added.
In an article last November, Carolann Najarian alleged that the investigators are “following orders from persons within the government who stand to benefit from expropriating these properties from us.” But she did not name anyone.
The letter supporting Najarian and her husband also warns that “foreign investors will only invest in a just, fair, and democratic Armenia.” According to lawyer Poghosian, the authorities’ handling of the case creates a totally different image of the country. “I can’t think of a worse message to people who want to help or invest in Armenia,” he said.
(RFE/RL photo: Carolann Najarian and Ashot Poghosian speaking at a news conference in April.)