The Georgian authorities have extradited to Armenia a fugitive Armenian businessman at the center of a high-profile fraud case that sparked last year corruption allegations against then Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian.
A court in Yerevan remanded the businessman, Ashot Sukiasian, in pre-trial custody immediately after he was transported from Tbilisi late on Thursday. Sukiasian is facing three counts of fraud and money laundering that carry up to 12 years’ imprisonment.
The case is based on allegations made by another entrepreneur, Paylak Hayrapetian. The latter claims that Sukiasian misappropriated most of a $10.7 million loan which he borrowed from an Armenian commercial bank to finance a business project in Africa proposed by the suspect.
The Armenian police launched a criminal investigation into the allegations in early 2013 but formally charged Sukiasian only several months later, after a series of reports that appeared on
Het.am, an investigative publication.
Hetq.am discovered that that the embezzled sum was transferred to the offshore bank account of a Cyprus-registered company, Wlispera Holdings. It disclosed a document purportedly certifying that Wlispera is co-owned by Sukiasian, Prime Minister Sarkisian and Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan, head of the largest diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Both Sarkisian, who resigned last April, and Kchoyan strongly denied having any stakes in the company, saying that it was registered in their names in Cyprus without their knowledge. Petros Clerides, the Cyprus attorney general, ruled out the possibility of fraudulent registration when he visited Yerevan in July 2013, however.
Sukiasian arrested at Tbilisi airport in February as he arrived in Georgia from Turkey. Georgian law-enforcement authorities cited an international arrest for the suspect issued by the Armenian police.
It is not clear whether Sukiasian will plead guilty to the accusations. Edik Baghdasarian, the Hetq.am editor, was skeptical about the outcome of the probe on Friday, predicting that the businessman will not implicate Sarkisian or Kchoyan in the alleged scam and will avoid a lengthy imprisonment in return. He argued that neither the ex-premier or the senior cleric close to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia has been questioned by the police so far.