By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s Court of Appeal on Thursday handed lengthy jail sentences on two prominent businessmen establishing their guilt on charges they were cleared of by the lower court last summer.
Gagik Hakobian, the leading shareholder in the Royal Armenia coffee-packaging company, was found guilty of large-scale organized fraud, smuggling, tax evasion and forgery, and one of the company’s top executives Aram Ghazarian was found guilty of tax evasion, smuggling and forgery. They were sentenced to six and two years in prison, respectively. The Court also ruled on confiscation of half of the defendants’ property, but worth no more than 455 million drams (about $1.5 million) in material damage caused to the state.
Hakobian will also have to pay a dram equivalent of about $556,000 to a private company in compensation of financial damages caused to it.
Presiding judge Suren Ghazarian said the Court of Appeal had found the verdict of the lower court baseless and the charges originally brought against the defendants by prosecutors totally proven.
The judge deducted 21 months from Hakobian’s jail term – the period when he was in pre-trial detention at the National Security Service’s jail. Therefore, his prison term is now four years and about three months, beginning in October 2007.
Aram Ghazarian, who like Hakobian spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention, was released from serving out the main sentence after amnesty was applied to him.
Hakobian and Ghazarian were arrested and charged in October 2005 after publicly accusing senior customs officials of corruption. They spent nearly two years in prison before getting a sensational acquittal by Judge Pargev Ohanian in July 2007.
State prosecutors were quick to challenge the ruling at the Court of Appeals and the latter issued an arrest warrant for Hakobian last September citing his failure to attend the hearings. The businessman, who had returned from Spain, insisted he never intended to flee the country and visited Spain to improve his health condition. The court, however, refused to grant him bail pending trial.
Remarkably, Judge Ohanian was fired by President Robert Kocharian in October after the Justice Council had found him to be in breach of law while adjudicating on a number of unrelated cases. The move, however, was seen by many as retaliation for his controversial acquittal of the Royal Armenia businessmen three months earlier.
Aram Ghazarian, who was released from custody after the verdict was pronounced, told RFE/RL he is going to appeal the verdict at the higher instance “because the appeals court has in fact legitimized the 21 months he spent in detention.”
He said the purpose of the verdict is to take over their business. “I cannot say who wants to do that. But it will be clear shortly,” Ghazarian said.