By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A restaurant employee controversially arrested last month protested her innocence and accused the Armenian authorities on Wednesday of holding her to ransom as part of their crackdown on a wealthy businessman close to opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The charges leveled against Anush Ghavalian stem from a tax evasion case brought against a Yerevan restaurant chain belonging to businessman Khachatur Sukiasian. The case was in turn part of a broader crackdown on Sukiasian-owned businesses launched by the authorities after the tycoon publicly pledged allegiance to Ter-Petrosian last fall.
Several of those businesses raided by tax officials and police have since been fined millions of dollars. Law-enforcement authorities also arrested in October Gevorg Safarian, executive director of the restaurant chain called Pizza di Roma. A court in Yerevan on Tuesday extended his pre-trial detention by two more months.
Ghavalian, who worked at one of the Pizza di Roma restaurants in the city center, officially as a cashier, was initially questioned by investigators from the State Tax Service (STS) as a witness. But she was arrested and charged with tax evasion on March 21. STS investigators say that the 36-year-old widow and mother of two failed to input all client payments into cash registers and thereby withheld 78 million drams ($250,000) in taxes in late 2006 and the first half of 2007.
In an interview with RFE/RL at a women’s prison near Yerevan, Ghavalian denied the accusations. “I am being held to ransom,” she said. “They say, ‘We’ll set you free once they pay up.’”
Ghavalian claimed that he was prosecuted after refusing to give incriminating testimony against Safarian. “They told me that if I give the right testimony they’ll let me go,” she said. “I said, ‘What is the right testimony?’ They said, ‘That you gave the money to Gevorg.’ I said, “Gevorg never told me to work like that. How can say that?’”
Ghavalian also asserted that she worked as a waitress, rather than a cashier, as was shown in the Pizza di Roma documents. “Anush Ghavalian worked as a de facto waitress and was not in charge of inputting data into cash registers,” the lawyer, Diana Grigorian, told RFE/RL.
Arshak Gasparian, the STS official handling the criminal case, refused to comment on these statements.
Sukiasian has repeatedly described as politically motivated the tax inspections of business entities making up his family’s SIL Group. The tycoon, who is also a parliament deputy, went into hiding along with other Ter-Petrosian allies following the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and opposition protesters. He is wanted by the police on charges of organizing the “mass riots” and attempting to stage a coup d’etat.
(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian.)