An opposition-leaning Armenian party is considering giving its lawmaker an extra “immunity” from possible arrest in an ongoing controversial prosecution on money laundering charges in the form of a mandate of a pan-European legislative body.
Two members of the Prosperous Armenia Party’s (BHK) parliamentary faction on Tuesday announced their willingness to renounce their seats in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that they hold as members of the Armenian delegation in favor of their fellow faction member Vartan Oskanian, who was stripped of his immunity against prosecution last week.
Oskanian, who served as Armenia’s foreign minister in 1998-2008, on Monday was summoned to the National Security Service (NSS) where he was charged with embezzlement and money laundering in a case widely seen as politically motivated. The prominent politician who has been critical of the government in recent months faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.
Petitioning for Oskanian’s prosecution last week, Armenia’s attorney general said the lawmaker misappropriated a $1.4-million donation by a U.S. philanthropist to his Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation in late 2010.
Oskanian denies wrongdoing and describes the charges against him as “political persecution” aimed at damaging him and his party ahead of a presidential election scheduled for February 2013. The 57-year-old lawmaker has been widely tipped as a possible challenger to current President Serzh Sarkisian.
BHK faction secretary Naira Zohrabian, who is one of the lawmakers ready to pass their mandates to Oskanian, said his membership in the delegation could be an additional safeguard against arrest, a development that she did not rule out in the current high-profile case.
Oskanian refused to testify to the NSS in his new capacity of a ‘defendant’, an attitude he had repeatedly demonstrated since May, even while appearing for interrogations as a witness. Investigators, however, did not seek sanctions against him, such as restricting his freedom or freedom of movement, which, by Armenian law, would require an additional application by the prosecutor-general to the National Assembly.
Zohrabian said holding a mandate of a PACE member would be an “extra guarantee” in case such a petition is presented in the future. She cited the regulations of the Assembly saying that its members are immune to prosecution while performing their official duties, implying that in order to arrest Oskanian Armenian authorities might need more than just the consent of the national parliament.
“We have discussed the matter with different PACE officials and it turns out there were precedents in the Council of Europe when similar petitions in national parliaments coincided with a lawmaker’s period of performing his or her duties at the PACE. The issue of lifting a member’s immunity then had to be discussed at the PACE’s legal committee and required the committee’s consent,” explained Zohrabian.
She said they had not yet talked the matter over with Oskanian, but had already secured the approval of this initiative by BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian.