By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament voted late Friday to allow law-enforcement authorities to launch criminal proceedings against one of its pro-government members accused of “hooliganism” and large-scale tax evasion.
The 56-to-22 vote came after several hours of heated debates during which Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian revealed fresh charges leveled against Hakob Hakobian, a wealthy businessman representing a rural constituency in southern Armenia.
Hovsepian said the embattled lawmaker not only led an armed assault on a gas distribution facility near Yerevan but has for years evaded taxes. The National Assembly granted his request to allow Hakobian’s prosecution on eight counts of “hooliganism,” embezzlement and fraud.
Hakobian, 43, was arrested late Sunday and held in detention for three days in connection with his role in a mass brawl that broke out outside the facility in the village of Hayanist belonging to the ARG national gas distributor. Prosecutors say he ordered a large group of men to attack security guards there after they refused to let him in. They say he was seeking explanations for a cutoff in supplies to nearby liquefied gas stations owned by him. At least four mean were seriously injured in the melee.
“Hakob Hakobian organized and carried out, as part in an organized group, a hooligan act involving the use of firearms,” Hovsepian told the parliament.
However, Hakobian came up with a different version of events as he addressed the legislature, saying that he did not provoke the violence and tried instead to stop the “manly fight” between the security guards and local residents working for him. “Yes, I took part in it, but only to prevent bloodshed,” he said.
Hakobian, better known to the public with his nickname “Choyt,” went on to allege serious violations of the due process in the ongoing criminal investigation into the incident. He claimed that the investigators arrested and are illegally keeping in custody more than 30 Hayanist residents employed by his firms.
Only four arrests have been reported by the authorities so far.
The National Assembly allowed the prosecutors to press charges against the controversial parliamentarian on the condition that he will not be kept in pre-trial detention. Furthermore, the prosecutors will have to again approach the parliament after they complete the inquiry and decide to put Hakobian on trial.
The vast majority of the 56 deputies that voted to lift their colleague’s immunity from prosecution apparently represented the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Hakobian is a member, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). None of their 50 or so deputies put any questions to Hovsepian during the debate.
The prosecutor-general was instead grilled by the opposition minority that alleged ulterior motives behind a rare prosecution of an influential government-connected individual in Armenia. Opposition lawmakers suggested that Hakobian got in trouble because he crossed swords with a feared security agency which provides bodyguards to President Robert Kocharian and has made all the arrests in the case. The head of the State Guard Service, Grisha Sarkisian, is also the honorary chairman of the Armenian Karate Federation whose members guard ARG facilities across the country. Many of them also work for Sarkisian’s agency.
Asked why the arrests were made by Sarkisian’s men, rather than the police, Hovsepian claimed that every Armenian citizen has the legal right to stop and apprehend individuals breaking the law.
Hakobian, for his part, appeared resigned to his fate as he spoke shortly before the vote. “Conduct an investigation and I will answer for my deeds,” he said in remarks addressed to the prosecutor-general. “But please do so only within the limits of law … But if I feel that the law is broken and that I can’t protect my rights, I will protect my rights by other means and you will be responsible for that.”
Hakobian hinted at the same time that he is ready to abandon his business assets to avoid going to prison. “I can give away my property as a gift,” he said. “No problem. I can earn it again because I’m a hard-working man.”
(Photolur photo: Hakobian addresses the parliament before the vote.)