By Ruzanna Stepanian
An Armenian businessman acquitted in a landmark court ruling is expected to return to Yerevan Wednesday to face fresh arrest and prosecution on fraud charges which he says were trumped up in retaliation for his allegations of high-level government corruption.
Gagik Hakobian, the leading shareholder in the Royal Armenia coffee company, and its deputy director, Aram Ghazarian, were cleared of any wrongdoing by a Yerevan court last July after spending nearly two years in prison. Prosecutors challenged the sensational acquittal at the higher Court of Appeals which opened hearings on the case in late August.
Hakobian left Armenia to undergo medical treatment in Spain shortly after his release and has failed to attend any of those hearings. The Court of Appeals ordered law-enforcement authorities to locate and again arrest the businessman, dismissing his assurances that he will return to the country after completing the treatment.
Hakobian told RFE/RL last week that he will fly back to Yerevan on October 3. His defense attorney, Ashot Sargsian, confirmed this on Tuesday. Sargsian said his client will do so despite realizing that he will be arrested again and could eventually be sentenced to 12 years in prison, a punishment demanded by the prosecutors.
“They will put on a show at the airport,” the lawyer told RFE/RL. “The moment he arrives here by plane he will be handcuffed and taken away … This is the kind of country we live in.”
The prosecutors and the State Customs Committee claim that Royal Armenia illegally avoided paying more than 1 billion drams ($3 million) worth of taxes and import duties. Hakobian and Ghazarian flatly deny the charges which they say stem from their refusal to engage in a scam that would have benefited two senior customs officials. The two men publicly and repeatedly voiced those allegations in the months leading up to their arrest in October 2005.
Pargev Ohanian, a Yerevan district judge who presided over their first trial, effectively sided with Royal Armenia, rejecting the charges brought by prosecutors as unfounded. The verdict is widely linked with disciplinary proceedings subsequently launched against Ohanian by a government-controlled body monitoring Armenian courts. The Council of Justice, another, more powerful judicial body, is to decide by next week whether to ask President Robert Kocharian to fire the judge or sanction him otherwise.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, petitioned the Court of Appeals last week to scrap its arrest warrant for the Royal Armenia owner. Harutiunian had declined to intervene in the high-profile case until then.
“Kudos to [the ombudsman] for appealing against the arrest,” said Sargsian. “But will he be consistent in fighting for Hakobian’s release after his petition is rejected? We’ll see.”