Armenian law-enforcement authorities have brought money laundering charges against opposition-leaning lawmaker Vartan Oskanian in a high-profile investigation that the former foreign minister and his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) regard as “politically motivated”.
Last week Oskanian lost his immunity as member of the National Assembly after a majority of his fellow lawmakers allowed his prosecution in a secret ballot boycotted by the parliamentary minority factions, including the BHK.
Oskanian was summoned to the National Security Service (NSS), a successor of the Soviet-era KGB, on Monday where he was formally charged with misappropriating a $1.4-million donation that was made by U.S. philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. to his Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation in late 2010. The lawmaker was also asked to testify in the capacity of a ‘defendant’, which he refused to do invoking his constitutional right.
As a witness in the case investigated since last May Oskanian has repeatedly declined to answer investigators’ questions. Oskanian has insisted all along that he did not commit any crime in keeping the donation on his personal account, which, he says, did not break either his arrangements with Huntsman or Civilitas. Moreover, he said he had already transferred the whole amount to the Foundation’s account.
After spending about an hour inside the NSS building Oskanian told the media that no measure restricting his movement or freedom had been taken by investigators.
Oskanian’s lawyer Tigran Atanesian explained that his client had been charged on two counts of the criminal code. Under the charges, which are “embezzlement of funds” and “legalization of incomes received in a criminal way”, Oskanian faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.
“Oskanian did not admit the charges and refused to answer questions,” the lawyer added.
In his turn, Oskanian said that the change of his status from a witness to a defendant after last week’s decision by the parliament to allow his prosecution had “political implications” and revealed the government’s goal to “step up pressure” on him and his party.
Many political experts and analysts in Yerevan have viewed Oskanian as a possible BHK candidate to challenge President Serzh Sarkisian’s presidency in next year’s election. Oskanian’s current prosecution is also widely seen as a government scenario to preclude the participation of the BHK, a party led by millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian, in the February vote with a separate candidate and possibly to enlist its support for Sarkisian’s reelection.
When asked by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service to comment on his possible presidential bid in 2013, Oskanian said, “I don’t have such a decision yet.”
Last week former president Robert Kocharian issued a statement in defense of Oskanian, who served as foreign minister throughout his decade-long rule in 1998-2008. A number of prominent public figures in the Armenian Diaspora have also voiced their support for the beleaguered lawmaker.
Civilitas Foundation Director Salpi Ghazarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) earlier on Monday that a collection of signatures was on in support of Oskanian.
Earlier, the United States, too, expressed serious concern about the Armenian authorities’ controversial criminal case against the BHK lawmaker.
“We hope that this case does not represent a politically motivated and selective enforcement of Armenian law, as this would detract from efforts to promote greater transparency and reform in the legal, justice and legislative sectors in Armenia,” the US Embassy in Yerevan warned in a statement on October 2.