The heads of a number of foreign diplomatic missions in Armenia have reaffirmed their support for a local think tank that has been in the center of a money laundering investigation of late.
At an event hosted by the Yerevan-based organization on Wednesday, the ambassadors of the United States, Germany and Switzerland as well as the honorary consul of Norway and Finland to Armenia praised their cooperation with the Civilitas Foundation and its media arm, Civilnet, describing them as reliable partners that are important to Armenia’s further democratization.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) last year launched a probe into an alleged money laundering by former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian, who founded Civilitas shortly after leaving public office in 2008 and led it until early last year when he entered politics a few months before general elections.
The start of the criminal investigation controversially coincided with the time when the Prosperous Armenia Party, with which Oskanian has been affiliated, refused to renew a coalition deal with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia after the May 2012 legislative polls.
Oskanian was stripped of his parliamentary immunity later that year and charged with misappropriation of some $1.4 million donated by a U.S. philanthropist to the Civilitas Foundation in 2010. Oskanian has denied the charges, describing them as ‘politically motivated’.
Salpi Ghazarian, the director of the Civilitas Foundation, which prosecutors consider to be the victim of the alleged crime, complained about continuing interrogations of her employees and herself by the NSS in a case that she believes should have been closed as groundless a long time ago.
Lawyer Vahe Grigorian, meanwhile, voiced suspicions that the continuing investigation pursues the hidden goal of restricting the freedom of speech at Civilnet, a popular news website that also operates an internet TV, and subsequently in other media in Armenia.
Armenia - John A. Heffern, US Ambassador to Armenia, at a meeting with Armenian journalists, Yerevan,17Oct2011
U.S. Ambassador John Heffern, who in the past repeatedly voiced concerns regarding the case involving Oskanian and Civilitas, reminded the participants of the conference about a number of projects that the U.S. Embassy has been carrying out with Civilitas.
“We, the United States, and we, the U.S. Embassy, consider Civilitas and its partner press organization, Civilnet, really important partners for us and for the international community here in Armenia,” said Heffern. “We think that Civilnet and Civilitas are really critically important to Armenia’s democracy and that’s why we work with them so closely.”
The U.S. ambassador stressed that his embassy has no concerns about how the projects on which it has been working with Civilitas have been conducted and concluded in terms of their budgets and time. “We have no questions about how U.S. taxpayer funds were spent through these three projects on the NSS’s list. And we definitely believe there is no victim here and as far as we know there is no complainant reporting any violations. We believe that there is nothing to be investigated by the NSS or anybody else and certainly nothing of a criminal nature,” he said.
German Ambassador to Armenia Reiner Morell shared the opinion of his American counterpart, stressing that Civilitas “makes a difference” in Armenia. “Its work is very important and that’s why we are involved in financing this. There is no harm in financing an organization which sticks to the law, and I can’t see anything which is beyond that,” said Morell.