By Karine Kalantarian
An administrative court has refused to meet the request of Armenia’s large mineral water producer for a partial relief in the continuing confiscation of its incomes, which the business argued would have allowed it to keep its operations going.
The Bjni company, which is part of a larger business conglomerate, SIL Concern, owned by the extended family of fugitive pro-opposition lawmaker Khachatur Sukiasian, has been idling since October 10 when a court ruling upheld tax authorities’ decision to fine it nearly $13.8 million for alleged tax fraud. The decision is largely viewed as part of the broader government crackdown on businesses whose owners backed the opposition in last February’s presidential vote.
Later in October, law-enforcement officials raided the company’s offices in Charentsavan, an unemployment-stricken town 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, to enforce the ruling. The company, which rejects the tax evasion charges as baseless, stopped its operations, leaving more than 400 workers, most of them Charentsavan residents, out of work.
Bjni’s legal representative told RFE/RL on Thursday that pending the appeal at a higher court the company had sought a partial letup to be able to reengage the currently redundant staff and continue to pay taxes. But Ara Zohrabian said the court had rejected the request.
“We asked for a partial confiscation of the sums that originate from the sales of our products so that we can keep at least 60 percent to pay wages and salaries, utilities bills, taxes as well as court and legal expenses,” the company’s representative said.
“While the dispute still continues, the consequences of the launched confiscation process at this moment are very painful,” Zohrabian added.
The SIL Concern group, which comprises a major commercial bank and a dozen other companies, fell foul of the authorities shortly after its main owner, parliament deputy Khachatur Sukiasian, publicly welcomed former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s September 2007 return to active politics.
Three of those companies were inspected by tax authorities and charged with evading millions of dollars in taxes late last year. Two of them, a pizza restaurant chain and a printing house, saw their chief executives arrested on corresponding charges.
Another Sukiasian-owned company, the exclusive distributor of Phillip Morris cigarettes in Armenia, went out of business earlier this year, saying that customs officials are refusing to process its imports on government orders.
The authorities deny any political motives behind the crackdown on Sukiasian-owned businesses, saying that it is part of a broader fight against widespread tax evasion in Armenia.
Meanwhile, according to Bjni’s representative, by closing businesses and depriving people of jobs the government only creates a dissatisfied mass of residents.
“I believe it was possible to wait for the appeal’s court decision before enforcing the sanctions,” he said. “But now the company is heading for a ruin.”
(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian)