The head of Armenia’s leading anti-graft watchdog and other civic activists have demanded criminal and parliamentary investigations of Vartan Ayvazian, a former environment minister heavily fined by a U.S. federal court for alleged corruption.
In a recent ruling that emerged last week, the Southern District Court of New York ordered Ayvazian to pay the U.S. mining company Global Gold $37.5 million in compensatory damages for the loss of one of its operating licenses in Armenia.
The Armenian Ministry of Environment stripped the Connecticut-based company of the license to exploit the Hankavan gold deposit in the central Kotayk province in 2006. Global Gold claims that it was penalized for refusing to pay a $3 million kickback demanded by Ayvazian.
Ayvazian, who served as minister from 2001-2007 and currently heads a standing committee of the Armenian parliament, strongly denies the allegations. He held a news conference on Monday to dismiss the U.S. court ruling and say that it can have “no legal consequences” in Armenia.
However, local civic campaigners and some other Armenians regard the embarrassing verdict as further proof of Ayvazian’s corruption. More than 200 of them have joined a new Facebook group demanding the launch of criminal proceedings against him as well as a separate inquiry by the National Assembly.
An online petition circulated by them this week says that Armenian prosecutors must now investigate the legality of mining licenses which Ayvazian issued to private firms while in office. Some of those firms were reportedly owned by him and his family.
Sona Ayvazian (no relation), head of the Anti-Corruption Center, the Armenian affiliate of Transparency International, has also joined the Facebook campaign. She pointed out on Wednesday that her group had urged law-enforcement bodies to investigate Ayvazian even before the Global Gold allegations.
“During his tenure, Vartan Ayvazian committed abuses of not only mining but other natural resources, including fisheries and specially protected areas,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He hunted for seagulls and uprooted forest trees and placed them in his restaurants.”
“So he is quite a discredited official about whom media have reported many materials,” she charged. “The prosecutors had many grounds to open a criminal case against Vartan Ayvazian. But they never demonstrated such political will.”
“If they [the authorities] take real action, Vartan Ayvazian will end up behind bars and not just be fined,” agreed Yeghia Nersisian, a well-known environmental campaigner. He said the creation of an ad hoc parliamentary commission tasked with conducting a separate inquiry would be equally important.
Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Ayvazian is a senior member, ruled out such possibility, however. He scoffed at the U.S. court ruling, calling it “nonsense.”
“Should an Armenian court now try a citizen of another country?” Sahakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Why should we discuss whether Vartan Ayvazian is guilty or not if they [the New York court] demonstrate nonsensical approaches devoid of any logic?”
He backed Ayvazian’s argument that a U.S. court can have no jurisdiction over an Armenian citizen.
Meanwhile, the Global Gold subsidiary in Armenia publicized on Wednesday documents purportedly proving the opposite. One of them is what the company presented as a copy of a 2003 purchase agreement that transferred ownership of the Hankavan mine from SHA, an Armenian firm allegedly owned by Ayvazian, to Global Gold. It says that the two sides agreed to submit to the jurisdiction of courts in the U.S. state of New York in case of disputes.