By Shakeh Avoyan
A major coffee importer pledged on Monday to continue its high-profile battle with the Armenian customs despite the recent arrest of its two top executives which it again condemned as an act of vengeance for their corruption allegations.
“This is a clear act of revenge against the top executives of Royal Armenia who have always refused to engage in a scam with the leadership of the State Customs Committee,” the company’s chief lawyer, Gevorg Minasian, said of the October 11 arrest of Gagik Hakobian and his deputy Aram Ghazarian.
The two men were arrested by officers of the National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, on October 11 and charged with fraud and smuggling. NSS investigators say they defrauded a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent who used to supply Royal Armenia with raw coffee beans and forged documents to evade import duties. Both suspects deny the accusations that carry between 4 and 8 years’ imprisonment.
The controversial case against Hakobian was brought earlier this year after he repeatedly accused the leadership of the State Customs Committee (SCC) of large-scale bribery. Hakobian alleged last year that his company is being driven out of business because of his refusal cut illegal deals that would have benefited senior customs officials. The SCC has dismissed the allegations.
Minasian made public Royal Armenia’s open letter to President Robert Kocharian, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and U.S. Ambassador John Evans which says the arrested men are innocent and must be set free. “We will not keep silent until our illegally arrested friends are released,” he told reporters. “We will be increasingly aggressive and will target the State Customs Committee as the main lair of these illegalities.”
The Royal Armenia lawyer also claimed that the criminal case is making nonsense of the authorities’ stated crackdown on corruption. “When they are looking for corruption among doctors and schoolteachers, I want to cry,” he said. “There is a lot more corruption within the customs.”
Hakobian’s and Ghazarian’s pre-trial detention was upheld by a Yerevan court of first instance last month. Their defense attorney, Ashot Sargsian, appealed the verdict but has yet to receive a response from Armenia’s Review Court. Both the NSS and the SCC have refused to comment on the case.
Sargsian suggested on Monday that the NSS investigators will not be in hurry to put the suspects on trial because they lack compelling evidence. “It’s easy to fabricate a non-economic case,” explained the former police officer. “You can bring in a few persons and tell them to give particular testimony. But every accusation of economic crime must be substantiated by a piece of paper. I am therefore very optimistic that this criminal case can not move forward.”
The authorities’ tactic, according to Sargsian, is to keep the two men in the ex-KGB’s basement jail in downtown Yerevan indefinitely until they “break down” and confess to what he sees as trumped-up charges.
Bribery and other forms of graft are believed to be widespread among Armenian customs officials. The arrested Royal Armenia executives are the only local businessmen to have publicly accused them of corruption so far.
(Photolur photo: Gevorg Minasian.)