An Armenian-American businessman has accused authorities in Armenia of harassing him and his family after being unexpectedly set free pending investigation into alleged tax evasion by one of his Yerevan-based firms.
Nareg Hartounian and two employees of the food-importing company GH Storage Enterprise were greeted by dozens of friends and sympathizers at his Naregatsi Art Institute shortly after their release late on Tuesday.
The three were arrested on Saturday on charges of “malevolently” evading 111 million drams in taxes ($290,000) since 2009.
Hartounian flatly denied the accusations, saying that the tax evasion case is the latest in a series of punitive actions taken against him and his family by Armenian law-enforcement bodies.
“The purpose of that is to exert pressure on and steal real estate from our family, which has made investments,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “In the past year we have endured a lot of harassment and threats.”
“This [arrest] was the continuation of that,” he claimed.
Hartounian refused to name “concrete individuals” who he said have set sights on the family assets. “I think it makes no sense to name them,” he said.
Asked where he is too scared to identify them, he said, “I’ve just come out of jail. Let me get some rest.”
One of his lawyers alleged earlier this week that the businessman was arrested because his family refused to sell a 34 percent share in a Yerevan-based manufacturing plant to a group of government-linked individuals.
Meanwhile, the State Revenue Committee (SRC), whose investigating division carried out the arrests, said on Wednesday that the three suspects were released from pre-trial detention at their own request. In a written statement, the SRC said the release is meant to help them “fulfill tax liabilities more effectively.”
One of the defense lawyers, Lernik Hovannisian, denied that, saying that none of his clients asked to be freed. He also said that while GH Storage Enterprise may have committed some tax “violations” the figure cited by the SRC is grossly inflated.
“The figure is fabricated,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Any economic entity may have 500,000 drams, one million drams or 1.5 million drams [in unpaid taxes] but that has nothing to do with malevolent tax evasion,” he said.
Hartounian and his lawyers challenged the SRC claims at Armenia’s Administrative Court shortly before the arrest.