By Ruzanna Stepanian
The two men arrested last month on suspicion of murdering Shahen Hovasapian, a senior official at Armenia’s State Tax Service (STS), are innocent and must be set free, their defense counsel insisted on Monday.
Hovik Arsenian claimed that law-enforcement authorities have failed to substantiate charges leveled against STS official Armen Virabian and his businessman brother Gurgen.
“There is no evidence at all,” said Arsenian. “What the prosecutors are saying is that there are substantiated suspicions in the case. The accusations have been leveled only on the basis of those suspicions.”
Hovasapian, who a headed a powerful STS department in charge of detecting and punishing tax evasion, was killed on September 6 in an explosion that rocked his car moments after he got into it outside his home in downtown Yerevan. The brothers are the only persons prosecuted in connection with the blast so far.
According to Arsenian, the case against them is based on the “false” testimony of the assassinated official’s driver, Andranik Charchian. “We consider it slander,” the lawyer said, alleging that Charchian was forced to incriminate his clients.
Law-enforcement sources have told RFE/RL that the investigators believe two days before the blast Virabian lured the driver to an expensive Yerevan restaurant for a dinner that lasted for two hours and had an explosive device planted under Hovasapian’s government-owned car in the process. It remains unclear why Virabian, who headed a unit within Hovasapian’s department, would want to assassinate his boss.
Arsenian dismissed rumors that Hovasapian had decided to fire his client, who worked as police officer before joining the STS. He also said the brothers were friends with Hovasapian’s driver.
“They had no reason to kill him,” their father, Rafael Virabian, insisted for his part.
Hovasapian’s assassination was strongly condemned by President Robert Kocharian, who linked it with the STS’s “efforts to tighten tax administration and create equal taxation conditions for everyone.”