By Hovannes Shoghikian
Armenia’s Administrative Court on Thursday annulled the controversial sale of a company that was effectively confiscated by the government from an opposition-linked businessman for alleged tax evasion.
The Bjni mineral water bottling plant was put up for sale late last year after its refusal to pay 5.2 billion drams ($14 million) in fines imposed by tax authorities. It was auctioned off for 4.44 billion drams last month.
The Administrative Court declared the auction, administered by the Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SMEJA), null and void on the grounds that the sell-off price was below the sum demanded by the authorities from Bjni’s owners. The court also cited bankruptcy proceedings sought against Bjni by some of its contractors that claim to be owed money by the company.
“The court ruled that under Armenian law the SMEJA had no right to put the company’s property up for sale because that would infringe on the rights of its creditors,” Ara Zohrabian, a Bjni lawyer, told RFE/RL. He said this means the SMEJA can not forcibly sell the company and must instead ask another court to declare it bankrupt.
“The SMEJA is discussing whether or not to appeal against the ruling,” said Ruben Grdzelian, a spokesman for the law-enforcement body. He said the decision will be announced “in the coming days.”
Ruben Hayrapetian, a government-linked tycoon who bought Bjni, also refrained from criticizing the unexpected verdict. “Every citizen of Armenia must humbly obey court rulings,” he told RFE/RL.
Bjni was until now owned by Khachatur Sukiasian, another millionaire businessman holding a parliament seat. Sukiasian supported opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 presidential election and went into hiding to escape arrest following the disputed vote. He is wanted by the authorities for his part in what they call an opposition plot to seize power.
Sukiasian has strongly denied the coup charges through his family members and lawyers. They insist that tax authorities’ crackdown on Bjni and other businesses making up Sukiasian’s SIL Concern group, launched in late 2007, was also politically motivated.
The company, based in Charentsavan, a town 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, employed more than 400 people before it was raided by tax and police officials and forced to suspend its operations in October. It has stood idle since then.