By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s Court of Appeals ordered on Tuesday law-enforcement authorities to locate and again arrest a businessman who was sensationally cleared last July of controversial criminal charges after spending nearly two years in prison.
The court cited Gagik Hakobian’s failure to attend its sessions on an appeal filed by prosecutors against the verdict handed down by a lower court.
Hakobian, who is the principal owner of the coffee 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 (SCC) 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. The company strongly denies the charges, saying that they were brought in retaliation for Hakobian’s corruption allegations.
Trial prosecutors representing the NSS were quick to appeal the decision by a Yerevan court of first instance to fully acquit Hakobian and Ghazarian. The latter left Armenia for Spain shortly after the surprise ruling and has failed to attend any of the Court of Appeals hearings on the case. Both Hakobian and his lawyers insisted on Tuesday he needs urgent medical treatment.
“I have been undergoing medical tests and my condition is quite serious,” Hakobian told RFE/RL by phone. “Doctors are thinking about whether or not I must undergo a heart surgery. This is the only reason why I am not in Armenia right now.”
However, the Court of Appeals dismissed such explanations, instructing the NSS to launch a hunt for the businessman.
Hakobian said he regrets the decision and believes it is unfair. “I will definitely return to Armenia and try to prove that the accusations are a lie,” he said.
Hakobian went on to insist on his and Ghazarian’s innocence. “There isn’t a single document proving our guilt,” he said.
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.
Hakobian claimed that the SCC’s defeat in the high-profile court battle would set a dangerous precedent for the customs chiefs. “Our full acquittal would mean that they broke the law,” he said. “Our victory would also show other entrepreneurs that it is possible to fight against [the customs.] Many of them would love to do that but are scared.”