A former provincial government official has been arrested on embezzlement charges which some observers see as a government move against Armenia’s embattled parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian.
The Special Investigative (SIS) service announced late on Wednesday that Tigran Virabian, the former head of the agriculture department of the southern Ararat province, conspired with several other individuals to misappropriate large quantities of government-subsidized fuel distributed to local farmers. An SIS statement did not name those people or specify the scale of the alleged embezzlement.
Officials in the provincial administration were cautious in commenting on the development. Karlen Hakobian, Ararat’s deputy governor, praised Virabian as a “diligent” man who has served the region for over a decade. Hakobian also insisted that the Ararat authorities closely monitored the fuel distribution to prevent possible corrupt practices among local officials.
It was not clear whether or not Virabian will plead guilty to the accusation. His house in the provincial capital Artashat appeared empty on Thursday.
Virabian, who resigned from his post in late May, caused outrage when he bullied and insulted a female voter as well as an independent observer during the February 2013 presidential election. He was the chairman of a precinct election commission in Artashat representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The reasons for Virabian’s resignation remain unclear.
His arrest came two weeks after the Armenian Finance Ministry claimed to have uncovered, in a nationwide inspection, serious abuses in the fuel scheme designed to help farmers across the country. It listed Ararat villages among rural communities affected by the alleged corruption. Among them was Mkhchian, a village close to Artashat that is the place of residence of speaker Abrahamian and his extended family holding sway in the area.
A Finance Ministry statement noted that over 40 tons of diesel fuel were distributed to Abrahamian’s relatives. But it did not say where any of that assistance was embezzled.
The statement came shortly after Armenia’s Audit Chamber subordinate to the parliament alleged serious misuse of budgetary funds in public procurements managed by various government agencies. Abrahamian added his voice to the allegations before they were rejected by President Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian. The president signaled his strong disapproval of the speaker’s behavior. Abrahamian is thought to have a tense rapport with Tigran Sarkisian.
The leadership of the ruling HHK discussed the matter last week at a meeting chaired by Serzh Sarkisian. Abrahamian insisted after the meeting that he was not censured by the party.