By Anna Saghabalian
A leading Armenian importer of coffee on Friday condemned the arrest of its two top executives, saying that they are paying the price for their refusal to illegally enrich senior customs officials.
Gevorg Minasian, the chief lawyer of the Royal Armenia firm, insisted that controversial fraud charges were brought against its chairman and co-owner Gagik Hakobian in retaliation for his high-profile corruption allegations voiced against the leadership of the State Customs Committee.
Hakobian and his deputy Aram Ghazarian were arrested on Tuesday nearly nine months after the National Security Service launched criminal proceedings against them. The Armenian successor to the Soviet-era accuses them of cheating a coffee supplier and forging financial documents with the aim of avoiding taxes.
Hakobian denies the charges. He claimed in June that his company is being driven out of business for its refusal to cut illegal deals with corrupt customs officials. Royal Armenia says that refusal led the Armenian customs to overtax its imported raw coffee beans.
According to Minasian, Royal Armenia was repeatedly offered to collude with the customs and the most recent of those offers was made last year. “In 2004 the now arrested Gagik Hakobian was invited to the State Customs Committee and offered to engage in shadow cooperation through a certain mechanism,” the lawyer told a news conference. “Gagik Hakobian refused such cooperation and became a pariah as a result.”
“Royal Amenia operates and will operate within the framework of law,” said Minasian. “We have never had any behind-the-scene relationship with the Customs Committee.”
The Customs Committee has previously denied such allegations and any wrongdoing in the collection of import duties, however. It refused on Friday to comment on the latest twist in the embarrassing dispute with Royal Armenia.
The dispute is currently being considered by Armenia’s Economic Court which is expected to hand down a ruling later this month. Minasian claimed that the arrest of his bosses was aimed at preventing the court from ruling in the company’s favor.
Customs administration is a major source of complaints from Armenian businessmen who say discretionary powers given to the customs are a breeding ground for corruption. However, only Royal Armenia has publicly accused the agency of engaging corrupt practices so far.
That corruption among customs officials remains a serious problem was acknowledged by President Robert Kocharian at a meeting with the Armenian customs chiefs on September on September 15. Kocharian demanded in particular that “strict” measures be taken against those customs officials who own or are otherwise linked to businesses. None of them is known to have been fired this year for corruption or mismanagement.
The head of the Customs Committee, Armen Avetisian, himself has extensive business interests, making him one of Armenia’s most controversial government officials. Avetisian held a senior post in the National Security Service in the past.
(Photolur photo: Minasian, left, speaking to reporters.)