The former head and 12 other employees of Armenia’s state pension fund went on trial Tuesday on charges of embezzling large sums allocated for the payment of various social benefits.
The trial stems from a large-scale criminal investigation into what law-enforcement authorities say were widespread corrupt practices within the State Social Security Service (NSS). Over 50 individuals have been prosecuted in the inquiry ordered by state prosecutors in May 2011.
The defendants stand accused of misappropriating about 377 million drams ($920,000) in public funds. The most important of them is Vazgen Khachikian, a prominent member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) who managed the SSSS until December 2010.
Khachikian was arrested last September along with two of his former high-ranking subordinates. He is facing between four and eight years in prison on three counts of fraud and embezzlement, charges which he denies.
Khachikian’s lawyer, Zhora Varosian, insisted on his innocence at the start of the high-profile trial in a district court in Yerevan. Varosian said he will present the court with “weighty evidence” to clear his client of any wrongdoing during court hearings on the case.
“We believe that the embezzlement charge was leveled baselessly,” Varosian told journalists. He also claimed that the criminal case is full of “contradictions.”
The first court hearing adjourned shortly after its start as two other defendants abandoned the services of their lawyers, citing lack of money needed to pay them. The trial will resume on March 19.