The Armenian parliament allowed law-enforcement authorities on Tuesday to prosecute Vartan Oskanian on fraud charges which the former foreign minister and his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) consider politically motivated.
The 131-member National Assembly lifted Oskanian’s immunity from prosecution by a secret vote of 64 in favor to 6 against after a heated debate that pitted its pro-government majority against virtually all other parliamentary factions. Deputies from the BHK and their opposition colleagues boycotted the parliament vote.
Oskanian was quick to condemn the development. “That injustice is not against me,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It is against our people, ordinary citizens, younger generations and the fate of our country in general.”
Oskanian is now expected to be formally charged with misappropriating a $1.4 million donation that was made by U.S. philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. to his Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation in late 2010. Addressing the parliament on Monday, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian indicated that he will not be arrested pending investigation.
One of Oskanian’s lawyers, Tigran Atanesian, insisted on Tuesday that Hovsepian failed to substantiate the accusations made by the National Security Service (NSS). He argued that neither the Civilitas management nor Huntsman’s representatives have lodged any complaints against his client.
Atanesian also strongly denied the chief Armenian prosecutor’s claim that Oskanian spent more than $180,000 of the donated money “for personal purposes” after it was transferred to one of his bank accounts in January 2011.
Oskanian, who is a senior member of the opposition-leaning BHK, assured lawmakers on Monday that he deposited “every penny” of the sum with a separate Civilitas account on Saturday.
Hovsepian faced more scathing attacks from opposition deputies. One of them, the BHK’s Elinar Vartanian, claimed that Armenian prosecutors routinely ignore reports of government corruption and other abuses but readily “fabricate” politically motivated cases. “In civilized democratic countries a prosecutor facing such questions resigns, rather than comes to the parliament with such petitions,” she said before the vote.
Aram Manukian, a deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), accused Hovsepian of having been involved in “all illegal persecutions and fabricated criminal cases in the Republic of Armenia.” Manukian singled out the influential prosecutor's role in the 2008 arrests and prosecution of more than a hundred loyalists of HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The 2008 crackdown was ordered by then-outgoing President Robert Kocharian following a disputed presidential election. Oskanian was still Armenia’s foreign minister at the time.
Not surprisingly, deputies from President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) defended the lifting of Oskanian’s immunity, saying that the BHK figure will remain at large and have a chance to disprove the accusations in court. Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian said he will personally apologize to the ex-minister if the latter is acquitted.
Abrahamian also said that Sarkisian is closely monitoring the case and interested in “establishing the truth.” “The president of the republic has made clear that all the guilty will be punished,” he told reporters. “If Vartan Oskanian is indeed not guilty, then all those bodies that started the process will be held accountable.”
The speaker further expressed hope that the BHK, which boasts the second largest parliamentary faction, will after all back Sarkisian in the next presidential election due in February. BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian’s reluctance to do so is seen by some local observers as the root cause of the case brought against Oskanian.