United States Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern has voiced fresh concerns about the Armenian authorities’ controversial criminal case against former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, saying that his prosecution is “bad” for the nation’s justice and democracy.
Heffern’s latest video blog entry posted on the Internet on Tuesday also urged Armenia to ensure a “fair” implementation of the rule of law.
Reacting to the latest turn of events in which Oskanian, a senior member of the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), was formally charged with embezzlement and money laundering and now faces up to 12 years in prison, Heffern repeated his previous concerns that the case “appears to represent the selective application of Armenian law.”
“Moreover, the timing of these events in relation to the election schedule is troubling,” he said. “We urge the government of Armenia to live up to its commitments to the systematic, fair and transparent implementation of the rule of law.”
Oskanian is being prosecuted for allegedly misappropriating a $1.4-million donation that was made by U.S. philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. to his Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation in late 2010. The lawmaker denies any wrongdoing, saying that the charges brought against him are “politically motivated”. He implies that the criminal investigation is an attempt to damage him and his party ahead of Armenia’s presidential election scheduled for February 2013.
The United States also reacted to last week’s decision by the National Assembly to grant the request of the attorney general to lift Oskanian’s parliamentary immunity so that he can be involved in the ongoing investigation as a ‘defendant’. In its October 2 statement the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan voiced a hope that “the case does not represent a politically motivated and selective enforcement of Armenian law”. It also warned that if that was the case, then it would “detract from efforts to promote greater transparency and reform in the legal, justice and legislative sectors in Armenia.”
Heffern also reportedly discussed this and other issues during his meeting with BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian on Tuesday.
In a statement released today Tsarukian's spokesperson Iveta Tonoyan said the U.S. ambassador described the case against Oskanian as "a serious blow" to Armenia's justice and democratic values. The BHK leader, for his part, said: "I asked the best lawyers to study the case and they have confirmed that all charges brought against Oskanian are baseless. At the meeting of the party's political council I personally instructed our faction members to make strong and principle-based statements and speeches."
Tsarukian, according to his spokeswoman, also stressed that he will be consistent to make sure the investigation follows an "impartial" course and has an "objective" outcome.
Meanwhile, Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesperson for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and deputy speaker of parliament, reacted to Heffern’s statement by urging the ambassador to refrain from “politicization” of Armenia’s legal matters.
“Naturally, I don’t share Mr. Ambassador’s view that this is a selective application of justice, because this is a purely legal matter,” said Sharmazanov in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am). “Our position was and remains that this is a legal matter and it is unacceptable to politicize it.”
Sharmazanov also described as “unacceptable” linking any legal process in Armenia to elections. “I think it is particularly ambassadors who should refrain from politicizing legal matters and linking them to elections in Armenia,” he stressed.
In the meantime, Oskanian, who hinted at his presidential ambitions earlier this week by urging the BHK to contest next year’s polls with a separate candidate and expressing readiness to become such a candidate to challenge President Serzh Sarkisian’s reelection bid, has posted on his Facebook account what he himself described as a “five-clause platform” addressing key challenges facing Armenia on the threshold of the 2013 election. Oskanian, in particular, called for drastic reforms to bring about changes in each citizen’s life as early as possible.”