By Astghik Bedevian
An Armenian appeals court began hearings Monday on a high-profile case involving two businessmen who were sensationally cleared last month of controversial criminal charges after spending nearly two years in prison.
Gagik Hakobian, a leading shareholder in the coffee processing and packaging company Royal Armenia, and its deputy director Aram Ghazarian had been arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing the Armenian customs of corruption. They went on trial late last year on charges of smuggling and tax fraud.
The State Customs Committee and the National Security Service (NSS) claim that Royal Armenia illegally avoided paying more than 1 billion drams ($3 million) worth of taxes and import duties. Prosecutors representing them in the court have demanded that Hakobian and Ghazarian be sentenced to 12 and 11 years in prison respectively.
The defendants and their lawyers have dismissed the accusations, however. They say the case was brought in retaliation for Royal Armenia’s refusal to engage in a fraud scam with senior customs officials and decision to publicly expose widespread corruption within the SCC.
In what may have been a precedent-setting ruling, a Yerevan court of first instance fully acquitted the two men on July 16. The unexpected development was followed by a meeting between President Robert Kocharian and Armenia’s leading judges.
Newspaper reports have said Kocharian expressed his displeasure with the acquittal and warned the judges, all of them appointed by him, against defying law-enforcement authorities. But according to a statement released by the presidential press service, the Royal Armenia case was not on the meeting’s agenda.
The prosecutors, meanwhile, stand by their accusations, having taken the case to the Court of Appeals. The first hearing there adjourned shortly after its start due to the absence of Hakobian and his defense counsel. According to Gevorg Minasian, the chief Royal Armenia lawyer, the businessman has developed “serious cardiac problems” and is currently undergoing treatment in Spain.
“As a result of spending one year and nine months in jail, his health condition has substantially deteriorated,” Minasian told RFE/RL. “Doctors say his condition is such that he could die at any moment,” he claimed.
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. However, most of them avoid going public with their grievances for fear of government retribution.
Royal Armenia is the only private firm which is known to have publicly clashed with the customs.