By Hovannes ShoghikianThe Armenian authorities appeared to have stepped up on Tuesday their controversial crackdown on companies owned by a millionaire businessman close to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Tax inspectors and police officers reportedly raided the offices of yet another company belonging to Khachatur Sukiasian and his extended family. According to Ara Zohrabian, a lawyer representing Sukiasian’s SIL Group holding, they not only inspected the Norshin construction firm’s books but took its chief accountant to the headquarters of a feared police unit tasked with combating organized crime for questioning.
“The accountant was detained without any legal grounds or justifications,” Zohrabian told RFE/RL, adding that he was released several hours later.
The reported raid is apparently part of an ongoing financial inspection of SIL Group’s activities launched by the State Tax Service (STS) last month following Sukiasian’s public endorsement of Ter-Petrosian’s bid to unseat the current Armenian leadership and return to power. The STS has already accused a Sukiasian-owned pizza restaurant chain and printing house of evading a combined 1.36 billion drams ($4.25 million) in taxes. One of their chief executives is currently under arrest pending investigation.
The government also began inspecting earlier this month the operations of two other companies controlled by SIL Group. Although no formal fraud accusations have been leveled against them so far, Zohrabian claimed that their senior executives were likewise forcibly taken away and interrogated by the special police last week. “Workers of these companies are really terrified now,” he said.
In an interview with RFE/RL last week, Sukiasian rejected the tax evasion charges and linked them with his unwavering support for Ter-Petrosian. The tycoon, better known to Armenians with his Grzo nickname, made a fortune in the 1990s by capitalizing on his close ties with members of the Ter-Petrosian administration. Sukiasian never made secret of his enduring admiration for Ter-Petrosian but avoided publicly challenging the current authorities until the ex-president ended his nearly decade-long political retirement in September.
Also alleging government retribution is a television station in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri that broadcast a September 21 speech in which Ter-Petrosian harshly criticized the administration of President Robert Kocharian. The STS accused the GALA TV on Monday of evading 26 million drams ($80,000) in taxes over the past two years.
Ter-Petrosian and his allies say the crackdowns on SIL Group and GALA are politically motivated and aimed at stifling dissent ahead of next February’s presidential elections, a view shared by other major opposition parties. Armen Martirosian, a parliament deputy from the opposition Zharangutyun party, urged the authorities on Tuesday to stop the “tax persecution” of defiant businessmen.
“It is inadmissible to place restrictions on free media, citizens and economic entities in the run-up to a fateful event like presidential elections,” Martirosian said in a speech at the National Assembly.
The STS on Tuesday again declined to comment on such claims and its actions against SIL Group.
(Photolur photo: Khachatur Sukiasian.)