A powerful Armenian official who has long been linked with lucrative entrepreneurial activity stepped down on Monday after being accused of having secret offshore accounts exposed by the Panama Papers.
The Panama Papers global scandal broke earlier this month when the German newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung” said it received 11.5 million leaked documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca showing how offshore companies are used to stash the wealth of the world's elite.
Hetq.am, a respected investigative publication, found that three such shadowy companies are fully or partly owned by Mihran Poghosian, the controversial head of an Armenian government body enforcing court rulings. It said Poghosian has the exclusive right to manage Swiss bank accounts of two of those firms. Hetq.am also traced their links with a Yerevan-based real estate agency that was awarded a major Armenian government contract last year.
Poghosian claimed through his Service for the Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SMEJA) on April 7 that the revelation “does not correspond to reality.” The SMEJA’s press office accused “some media outlets” of waging a smear campaign against its 39-year-old boss.
“I regret that my name figures alongside the family of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that has indeed appropriated billions of dollars,” Poghosian said in a statement posted on the SMEJA website on Monday.
“I find it unacceptable to see my personality cause any civilizational parallels between my country and dictatorial Azerbaijan, which is my I have tendered my resignation today,” he announced. “I will comment on the offshore reports as an ordinary citizen wielding no state levers.”
The Panama leak caused a stir in Armenia, with a leading opposition parliamentarian, Levon Zurabian, demanding on April 7 an explanation from the government on the parliament floor.
Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian, to whom the SMEJA is nominally subordinate, referred all questions to the State Commission for the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials, a supposedly anti-corruption body. She said only the commission can decide whether to ask prosecutors to launch criminal proceedings against Poghosian.
The Armenian police announced five days later that the prosecutors have ordered them to look into the veracity of the Hetq.am report based on the Panama Papers.
Hetq.am and many other independent media outlets have for years accused Poghosian of having extensive business interests resulting from his government position and connections. In particular, the SMEJA chief is widely regarded as the main owner of a company enjoying a de facto monopoly on banana imports to Armenia. Media reports have also linked him with a car dealership which has secured many procurement contracts from the SMEJA without tenders.
Poghosian, who is thought to have enjoyed President Serzh Sarkisian’s strong support until now, has repeatedly denied owning businesses or using his position to enrich himself and his family.
Varuzhan Hotkanian, head of the Armenian branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, suggested that Poghosian was forced to resign by the country’s leadership. But he said the resignation does not testify to the government’s genuine commitment to combatting graft or herald a tougher fight against corrupt practices.
“I don’t regard this resignation as a prelude to making the situation better,” Hoktanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “This was done for somehow placating the public.”
“I think it was practically impossible to cover up what was revealed [by the Panama Papers] because those offshore companies were registered in his, not somebody else’s, name,” said the activist.