By Karine Kalantarian
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian presented and endorsed on Wednesday the findings of an official inquiry which dismiss media reports implicating Armenian law-enforcement officials in the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation abroad.
The inquiry was launched last month in response to U.S. claims that the Armenian authorities are still not doing enough to combat the practice. It was conducted by an hoc commission of prosecutors and other government officials formed by Hovsepian.
In a worldwide “interim assessment” of the problem released on February 1, the U.S. State Department deplored “modest” progress in the implementation of an anti-trafficking program launched by the Armenian government three years ago. “Regrettably, the government did not take any proactive steps to address allegations of trafficking-related governmental complicity and corruption,” it said in a written statement. The State Department specifically noted that “a government official, who has been frequently criticized by victims and NGOs for trafficking complacency, remains in his position within the Prosecutor General's anti-trafficking task force.”
It was an apparent reference to Aristakes Yeremian, a senior official at Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General. A series of reports that appeared in the Hetq.am online publication last year charged that Yeremian and other law-enforcement officials are maintaining close ties with prostitution rings operating in the United Arab Emirates, the prime destination of hundreds of women who have been trafficked from Armenia. Hetq.am editor Edik Baghdasarian, who repeatedly visited Dubai in 2004 and 2005, cited unnamed Armenian prostitutes there as telling him that they were blackmailed into paying bribes to those officials.
Yeremian strongly denied the allegations in an RFE/RL interview in April last year. He said he met Armenian pimps in Dubai in September 2004 only to “question” and warn them against continuing their illegal activities.
The commission set up by Hovsepian concluded that the Hetq.am reports were not backed up by concrete evidence and can therefore not be used for launching criminal proceedings against any law-enforcement official. Mihran Minasian, a senior prosecutor who led the inquiry, complained that Baghdasarian refused to submit video of his incriminating interviews with Armenian women working in Dubai. The journalist says he did not want to disclose their identity because he feared for their security.
Speaking at a news conference, Minasian cast doubt on the credibility of Baghdasarian’s claims that Yeremian received a $5,000 bribe from Anahit Malkhasian, a reputed pimp who died in a mysterious car accident in Dubai late last year. The prosecutor also said her death made it practically impossible to investigate the allegation.
The problem of human trafficking came to light in 2002 when the U.S. State Department included Armenia into its so-called Tier 3 group of nations which Washington believes are doing little to prevent illegal cross-border transport of human beings and can therefore be stripped of U.S. economic assistance. Armenia was removed from the blacklist and upgraded to the Tier 2 category the next year after what the State Department described as “significant efforts” taken by its government.
However, the department went on to downgrade the country to a Tier 2 “watch list” last June, citing the Armenian authorities’ “failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking over the past year.” Its interim assessment came as another warning to Yerevan.
Incidentally, Hovsepian was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans as he spoke to journalists before the presentation of the probe’s findings. “I want all of you to grill members of the investigating team,” he said before leaving the conference room with Evans.