By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian government’s top official in charge of detecting and investigating tax evasion was killed in a car explosion in downtown Yerevan early on Wednesday.
Shahen Hovasapian, head of a State Taxation Service (STS) division tasked with combating tax fraud, was found in a critical condition in his government-owned car after it was rocked by the blast just 50 meters from his apartment building. He died while being rushed to hospital, police and other security officials at the scene told RFE/RL.
They said that an explosive device planted under a front seat occupied by Hovasapian went off just seconds after he and his teenage son were driven away from their home. They said the driver suffered minor injuries, while the young man survived unscathed. The blast left a gaping hole under the car’s front seat next to the driver’s, suggesting that Hovasapian was its main target.
President Robert Kocharian was quick to condemn the killing and link it with Hovasapian’s professional activities. “The criminal conduct, which is directed against the state’s efforts to toughen tax administration and create equal taxation conditions for everyone, is extremely condemnable and can not change the resolute state policy pursued in that area,” his spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, said in a statement.
Soghomonian also said that Kocharian issued the law-enforcement authorities with “strict instructions to take all measures to solve the crime as rapidly as possible.”
State prosecutors immediately launched a criminal investigation into the apparent assassination but reported no arrests in the following hours. Law-enforcement officials refused to come up with possible theories of the crime.
Despite holding an important government post, Hovasapian has rarely figured in the news and is not known to have initiated high-profile tax evasion cases against big companies controlled by influential individuals. The assassinated official himself was a wealthy businessman, reportedly owning one of Armenia’s two main liquefied gas companies, Goshgaz. The other company involved in the lucrative gas business, Multi-Leon, is controlled by Gagik Tsarukian, a powerful government-connected tycoon.
Hovasapian, who is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and was a field commander during the war with Azerbaijan, is the first high-ranking Armenian tax official killed while in office. Gagik Poghosian, who briefly headed the government’s tax collection agency in 2000, died in a grenade attack under similarly mysterious circumstances five years ago. The apparent contract killing has still not been solved.
Hovasapian’s violent death continued recent months’ series of high-profile murders that have raised widespread concern about the situation with crime and rule of law in Armenia. Among their victims were a businessman, a reputed crime figure and a senior member of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Karabakh war veterans. Nobody has been prosecuted in connection with those crimes so far.