Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian on Thursday described as a significant anti-corruption measure a new Armenian law that criminalizes “illegal enrichment” of high-ranking state officials.
Armenia’s government pushed the law through the parliament last week as part of a tougher fight against corruption declared by it.
The measure will apply to some 600 officials, including ministers and judges, who were already legally obliged to declare their assets to a special state commission. They will now have to also substantiate the origin of their assets if those exceed their annual salaries by at least 5 million drams ($10,500). They would risk up to 6 six years in prison in case of failing to do so.
Some Armenian opposition politicians have voiced skepticism over the new legislation, saying that it will not make life harder for corrupt officials. They also question the government’s commitment to the rule of law.
“I think it’s wrong and … even dishonest to speak of the absence of political will,” Hovannisian told a news conference. “I am convinced that the criminalization of illegal enrichment will have a huge significance in terms or preventing and deterring [illegal] practices.”
“If someone says that they forgot to file an [income and asset] declaration, there will now be criminal liability for that as well,” Hovannisian said.
One of the arguments made by critics is that the law will not prevent corrupt officials from registering their assets in the name of their distant relatives or friends.
Hovannisian acknowledged this fact but said that it is practically impossible to extend the anti-corruption measure to all individuals related or connected otherwise to senior state officials. “That could amount to a human rights violation,” she said. “Imagine that you have a distant relative holding a senior position. Do you think you should have to submit an income declaration just because of that?”
Many senior Armenian officials are believed to be well-to-do individuals despite their relatively modest salaries. The veracity of their income declarations filed with the State Commission for the Ethics of High-Ranking Officials has long been questioned by anti-corruption activists and media.
Prime Minister Karen Karapetian’s cabinet pledged to criminalize “illegal enrichment” in its policy program approved by the National Assembly in October. The program promises “more efforts to eliminate the biggest obstacle to the development of the state: favoritism, embezzlements, bribery and other manifestations of corruption.”