By Ruzanna Stepanian
Two arrested top executives of a coffee processing and packaging company that has alleged high-level corruption in the Armenian customs will go on trial soon on what they and their lawyers call trumped-up criminal charges.
Gagik Hakobian, a leading shareholder of Royal Armenia, and its deputy director, Aram Ghazarian, were arrested and charged in October last year with smuggling, tax evasion and fraud.
The company says that they were prosecuted in retaliation for publicly implicating senior officials at the State Customs Committee (SCC) in large-scale bribery. Hakobian had repeatedly claimed in the months leading up to his arrest and that Royal Armenia is being illegally penalized by the SCC for its refusal to engage in a scam that would have benefited two senior customs officers.
The company’s chief lawyer, Gevorg Minasian, said on Friday that the National Security Service (NSS) has completed its criminal investigation and sent the case to a district court in Yerevan. He said no date has been set for the start of the trial yet.
Minasian insisted that his arrested colleagues are innocent and that the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB has no evidence to substantiate the charges leveled against them. “It’s a 100 percent lie,” he told a news conference. “The whole thing was fabricated. This is no justice or law enforcement, this is simply a sabotage.”
However, Armen Avetisian, the controversial head of the SCC, stood by the accusations this week, accusing the embattled company of illegally avoiding more than 1 billion drams ($2.6 million) worth of taxes and import duties. He also denied the corruption allegations.
The SCC is reputed to be one of the most corrupt government agencies in Armenia, with local businessmen routinely complaining about its allegedly arbitrary practices. Royal Armenia is the only firm that has publicly accused and challenged it.
According to Minasian, the authorities and rival firms connected to them are now trying to drive Royal Armenia out of business. He said a senior NSS official in charge of the case has ordered the customs to impound a batch of coffee beans imported by the company late last month. The lawyer claimed that the order is illegal, arguing that Hakobian is only one of Royal Armenia’s owners and that the company assets can not be deemed his personal property.
The bitter dispute stems from the SCC’s discretionary power to determine the market value of imported commodities before levying a fixed 10 percent duty from them. It broke out two years ago when Royal Armenia charged that Avetisian’s deputy Gagik Khachatrian offered the company to grossly undervalue the price of its imported coffee in return for sharing in the resulting extra profits.
(Photolur photo: Gevorg Minasian.)