By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Aleksandr Arzumanian, a former foreign minister opposed to Armenia’s current leadership, was unexpectedly set free late Thursday after spending four months in jail on charges of being illegally financed from abroad.
Law-enforcement authorities made it clear on Friday that the charges have not been dropped and that Arzumanian may still stand trial for what they regard as money laundering. Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian said he personally ordered the surprise release in view of new facts that emerged during the politically charged investigation
Arzumanian, who has repeatedly rejected the accusations as unfounded and politically motivated, briefly spoke to RFE/RL moments after his release from the basement jail of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS). “I was asleep when prison guards woke and told me to go home,” he said by phone.
The former minister, who set up last year a small opposition group campaigning for regime change in the country, was reluctant to comment on his release. “I came out of the prison two minutes ago and am very tired,” he said. “I can’t wait to go back to my family and kiss my child. I don’t care about anything else right now.”
Arzumanian avoided any contacts with media the next day. Family members said he will speak up next week.
Arzumanian was set free just one week after a Yerevan court agreed to let the NSS keep him under arrest for two more months, dismissing protests from his defense lawyer. The court ruled that the oppositionist could obstruct the ongoing investigation, have “illegal influence” on investigators and even go into hiding if he were to be set free.
Arzumanian, who had served as Armenia’s foreign minister from 1996-1998, was arrested on May 7 on charges of illegally receiving a large amount of money from Levon Markos, a fugitive Russian businessman of Armenian descent. His arrest came two days after NSS officers searched his Yerevan apartment and confiscated $55,400 worth of cash kept there.
They also searched and confiscated a similar sum in the Yerevan home of Vahan Shirkhanian, another former government minister and a senior member of Arzumanian’s Civic Resistance Movement. But unlike Arzumanian, Shirkhanian was not prosecuted for attempting to “legalize revenues obtained by criminal means.” Both men deny being financed by Markos.
The NSS faced more questions about the credibility of its case when a Moscow-based friend of Arzumanian’s, Aleksandr Aghazarian, publicly stated that he is the one who sent the money to the former minister. Two NSS officers and a prosecutor were sent to Moscow shortly afterwards to investigate the claims. The security agency said last month that it has asked Russian law-enforcement authorities to check their veracity and look into the legality of Aghazarian’s revenues.
“I issued the order [to release Arzumanian] because I made sure that our law-enforcement bodies have done everything in Armenia and the Russian Federation within the framework of the criminal case,” Prosecutor-General Hovsepian told reporters.
Hovsepian said he believes Russian prosecutors will take “a lot of time” to respond to their Armenian colleagues’ inquiry. “In these circumstances, I found it inexpedient to keep Arzumanian under arrest,” he explained.
The chief Armenian prosecutor insisted that Arzumanian is not a political prisoner, dismissing claims to the contrary made by many opposition leaders. He said he believes Arzumanian is guilty of money laundering.
“Those sums were sent from Russian by means of illegal bank transfers and in the name of other individuals acting as a front [for the recipient,]” Hovsepian said, adding that Arzumanian has failed to explain “the need for receving and spending those sums.”
Arzumanian’s lawyer Hovik Arsenian, meanwhile, said on Friday that his client can not be prosecuted even if the money sent to him is found to be of dubious origin. Arsenian and other critics of the criminal case argue that Armenians receive at least $1 billion in cash remittances from their relatives and friends working abroad and that Armenian law does not obligate them to prove that the money was earned legally.