An Armenian business group controlled by an opposition-linked businessman has asked a European court to award it 214 million euros ($304 million) in compensatory damages for the effective confiscation of one of its key assets by the Yerevan government, it emerged on Friday.
The Bjni mineral water plant belonging to the SIL Concern group of Khachatur Sukiasian and his extended family was auctioned off by the government earlier this year after its owners’ failure to pay 5.2 billion drams ($14 million) in fines imposed for alleged tax evasion.
Armenia’s Administrative Court annulled the auction in March, saying that the authorities can not forcibly sell the company unless it is declared bankrupt by another court. Bjni has since been going through bankruptcy proceedings and facing an uncertain future. A court-appointed official administering the process said last month that the company will be sold off in parts unless SIL comes up with a credible plan to repay its debts.
The Sukiasian family, which denies the tax fraud charges as politically motivated, has tried unsuccessfully to have Armenian courts overturn Bjni’s seizure. One of its lawyers, Ara Zohrabian, told RFE/RL that it has now taken its case to the European Court of Human Rights and hopes that the Strasbourg-based tribunal will force the Armenian government to compensate it for the “material and moral damage” inflicted on SIL. He insisted that the government’s actions violated Armenia’s laws and European conventions signed by Yerevan.
“This is not the final sum,” Zohrabian said of the huge compensation sought by SIL. “The company is still incurring losses, and those losses are now being calculated by SIL Concern specialists. So I think these claims could be adjusted later on.”
Zohrabian acknowledged that the Strasbourg court, overwhelmed by thousands of lawsuits filed by citizens of Council of Europe member states, is unlikely to consider the appeal before 2011.
Bjni and several other companies making up SIL Concern were raided by tax officials and accused of large-scale tax evasion shortly after Khachatur Sukiasian voiced support in September 2007 for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s bid to return to power. The tycoon was among several Ter-Petrosian associates who fled the country to escape arrest following the February 2008 presidential election. He said last month that he will stay in hiding despite a possibility of being granted amnesty the authorities.
The crackdown on SIL has hit even harder some 400 residents of Charentsavan, an unemployment-stricken town about 40 kilometers north of Yerevan, who worked at Bjni until it was forced to halt production operations last October. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian assured them in late March that they will return to work soon.