By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s Court of Appeals on Monday refused to grant bail to a prominent businessman who spent nearly two years in prison on controversial fraud charges and was acquitted by a lower court only to be arrested again earlier this month.
Gagik Hakobian, the leading shareholder in the Royal Armenia coffee company locked in a bitter dispute with the government, was taken into custody immediately after returning to Armenia from Spain where had reportedly undergone medical treatment since his sensational acquittal last July.
Hakobian and Royal Armenia’s deputy director, Aram Ghazarian, had been arrested and charged with tax evasion and fraud in October two years ago after publicly accusing senior customs officials of corruption. A Yerevan court of first instance found the accusations baseless and freed the two men.
State prosecutors were quick to challenge the ruling at the Court of Appeals. The latter issued an arrest warrant for Hakobian last September, citing his failure to attend its hearings on the high-profile case. The businessmen insists that he never intended to flee the country and visited Spain to improve his health condition. His lawyer, Ashot Sargsian, reiterated these arguments as he asked the panel of three judges to free his client pending trial. Sargsian emphasized the fact that Hakobian voluntarily returned to Armenia.
The presiding judge, Suren Ghazarian, rejected the petition, saying that Hakobian could obstruct the trial and even go into hiding if set free. He also dismissed a similar request filed by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman.
Sargsian condemned the rebuff and demanded that Ghazarian be replaced by another judge. The court rejected the demand.
Sargsian claimed that the judge presiding over appeals hearings can not be objective because he fears meeting the fate of Pargev Ohanian, the district court judge to acquitted the Royal Armenia men and now looks set to be dismissed by President Robert Kocharian.
The Council of Justice, a powerful body overseeing the Armenian judiciary, asked Kocharian on Friday to relieve Ohanian of his duties, saying that he broke the law when adjudicating two dozen criminal and civil cases. Although the Royal Armenia case is not among them, Ohanian is widely believed to be paying the price for his surprise July 16 ruling.
In a related development, Vache Petrosian, an Armenian-American businessman who claims to be defrauded by Royal Armenia, alleged on Monday that he believes Ohanian acquitted the two businessman in return for a hefty bribe. He offered no proof of the allegation, though.
Petrosian’s fraud claims form part of the criminal case brought against Hakobian and Aram Ghazarian by the National Security Service (NSS) two years ago. The NSS says their company also illegally evaded than 1 billion drams ($3 million) worth of taxes and import duties.
Royal Armenia strongly denies the accusations, saying that they were leveled in retaliation for its owner’s public allegations of high-level corruption within the State Customs Committee.