A Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) rapporteur for the monitoring of Armenia has expressed his concern about the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on what he described as “controversial criminal charges”.
“This is especially worrying in the light of persistent allegations that political motives have played a role in the charges that are levied against him,” emphasized Axel Fischer in his statement posted on the PACE’s official website on Thursday.
“If substantiated, these allegations would mean a step backwards from the positive trend with regard to political normalization that we have witnessed over the last year and a half,” said the Strasbourg-based body’s German representative, adding that he had also sent a letter to Armenian Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamian asking him to clarify the charges, as well as the basis on which the parliament agreed to lift Oskanian’s immunity.
Oskanian, a member of the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), was stripped of his immunity on October 2 following an application to the National Assembly by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, who sought to prosecute the lawmaker on money laundering charges.
Oskanian was summoned to the National Security Service earlier this week and was formally charged with misappropriation of some $1.4 million donated by a U.S. philanthropist to his Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation in late 2010. The BHK member denies the charges, calling them politically motivated and implying that they are aimed at derailing chances for his party ahead of next year’s presidential election.
United States Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern voiced fresh concerns earlier this week regarding the criminal charges filed against Oskanian, a former U.S. citizen. He said the case was “bad for justice and democracy in Armenia”. Heffern also called on the Armenian government to “live up to its commitments to the systematic, fair, and transparent implementation of the rule of law.”
The U.S. diplomat also met with BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian on October 10. According to Tsarukian’s spokesperson the two also discuss matters concerning Oskanian during their meeting.
The spokesperson, Iveta Tonoyan, said that “relevant bodies should make corresponding conclusions” from what she described as “tough assessments” by the U.S. ambassador.
“I think that the ambassador’s message will get across and corresponding bodies will ensure a fair investigation,” Tonoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) on Thursday.
To the question whether Tsarukian and Heffern discussed issues concerning next year’s presidential election, the spokeswoman, who also attended the meeting, said that some issues were discussed “off the record” and were, therefore, not subject to publication. She, however, again repeated that Oskanian’s recent statement that the BHK must contest the February presidential election with its own candidate and that he was ready to become such a candidate was his “personal position”. She also reiterated that the public will learn about the final stance of the party in due time.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s ruling party criticized U.S. Ambassador Heffern on Wednesday for “politicizing” the Oskanian case.
Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Armenia and deputy speaker of parliament, described as “unacceptable” linking any legal process in Armenia to elections. “I think it is particularly ambassadors who should refrain from politicizing legal matters and linking them to elections in Armenia,” he stressed.
And the Prosecutor-General’s Office refused to comment on Heffern’s statement, saying that as a legal body it does not comment on “political matters”.
Spokesperson Sona Truzian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that the measures taken in the course of the investigation so far have not affect Oskanian’s activities as a member of parliament. “Even today Oskanian can freely continue his work as a member of parliament, using all the possibilities that the parliament provides,” she said.