Armenia’s police on Monday released prominent pro-opposition businessman Khachatur Sukiasian’s brother and one of his associates after they signed a written undertaking not to leave the city while the investigation into a murder threat claim made against them was in progress.
Saribek Sukiasian, the co-owner of the family’s SIL Concern holding company, and director of the Ayrarat market in Yerevan Artash Stepanian, were kept in police custody for more than 72 hours on suspicion of threatening to kill a fellow entrepreneur in what Armenia’s main opposition has described as another example of political persecution against its supporters.
Sukiasian, who has managed SIL companies since his elder brother went into hiding in March 2008, and Stepanian were forcibly taken to a police station in the city’s Erebuni district from the offices of the Sukiasian family’s SIL Concern holding company on Friday.
A police statement issued later that day said the raid was prompted by a complaint from a Yerevan resident identified as Gor Davtian. It said that Sukiasian and Stepanian forced Davtian to sign “some documents” relating to his shares in a little-known company called Byuregh.
The statement said that Davtian sold his 41 percent stake in Byuregh to Sukiasian’s wife in October 2008 but that Armenia’s Court of Cassation annulled the deal last November. It said Davtian faced “real death threats” when he visited Sukiasian earlier on Friday and informed the latter that he has found another buyer for the shares.
Saribek Sukiasian’s detention came just one month after the Armenian authorities completed a highly controversial confiscation of a mineral water plant that belonged to the Sukiasian family. The Bjni plant was put up for sale last year after its owners refused to pay almost 5.2 billion drams ($13.6 million) in fines imposed for alleged tax evasion. The Sukiasian brothers rejected the accusation as baseless and politically motivated.
Bjni and several other companies making up SIL Concern were raided by tax officials and accused of large-scale tax fraud 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.
Khachatur Sukiasian surrendered to the police in September and was set free three days later despite remaining charged with organizing the March 2008 “mass riots” in Yerevan. Law-enforcement also allowed him to leave the country, ostensibly for receiving medical treatment abroad.
Hours before the release of Sukiasian and Stepanian, Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) issued a statement in which it condemned the actions, saying they were aimed at “intimidating the whole society”.
“The regime continues to rely on the only means of its existence, political persecution, which targets all -- from politicians and businessmen to ordinary people,” it said.
The opposition alliance described the case as “a clear example of political revenge”, inviting the attention of local and international human rights groups to it. It also demanded an immediate release of the two businessmen held in custody.
Senior HAK member Karapet Rubinian said at a press conference on Monday that like his brother Khachatur Sukiasian, Saribek Sukiasian was also a victim of persecutions for his political views.
“Now that they are done with Khachatur Sukiasian, they start dealing with Saribek Sukiasian. Their goal is to seize what belongs to the people who had the courage to support the opposition, instead of serving the ruling criminal group,” said Rubinian.
Armenia’s police authorities, meanwhile, insist that the case is of “an economic nature.”