Lawyers for former Finance Minister Gagik Khachatrian on Wednesday appealed against a law-enforcement agency’s decision to arrest him on suspicion of corruption.
The National Security Service (NSS) detained Khachatrian late on Tuesday after searching his and his relatives’ homes and offices. The NSS director, Artur Vanetsian, said he is suspected of abusing his powers and misusing “tens of millions of dollars” worth of public funds while in office.
Khachatrian, who had also ran Armenia’s tax and customs services during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule, was indicted on Tuesday as part of a separate corruption inquiry conducted by another law-enforcement body, the Special Investigative Service (SIS).
One of his lawyers, Yerem Sargsian, criticized the arrest, saying that his client had never attempted to go into hiding. It would have been more “reasonable” to have Khachatrian sign a pledge not to leave Armenia pending investigation, instead of taking him into custody, Sargsian told reporters.
The NSS did not indict the former official, who is reputed to be one of the country’s richest men, as of Wednesday evening. Nor did it shed more light on the criminal case.
In Sargsian’s words, one of the accusations brought against Khachatrian stems from NSS claims that some employees of the State Revenue Committee (SRC) systematically did not report for work but still got paid by the government agency.
“This raises the question of to what extent Mr. Khachatrian was responsible for that,” said the lawyer. He also suggested that the alleged fraud could not have cost the state the “tens of millions of dollars” cited by Vanetsian.
Khachatrian, 53, had held various positions in the tax and customs services for over a decade preceding his appointment as SRC chief in 2008. He headed the tax collection agency until 2014 and served as Armenia’s finance minister for the next two years.
Throughout his tenure Khachatrian was dogged by corruption allegations. He always denied illegally enriching himself and his family.
The NSS said on Tuesday that it began investigating Khachatrian in February this year. This raised questions about the timing of his arrest. Some commentators speculated that it is aimed at deflecting public attention from the Armenian government’s possible decision to allow a Western company to restart a controversial gold mining project resisted by environmentalists and some opposition groups.
Two opposition lawmakers opposed to mining operations at the Amulsar deposit cast doubt on the credibility of that speculation. “If it’s a [government] ploy, then it’s a failed ploy,” one of them, Naira Zohrabian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“Amulsar is a bigger issue than the arrest of [Robert] Kocharian, Serzh Sarkisian, Gagik Khachatrian or anyone else,” said Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party.
Marukian at the same time welcomed Khachatrian’s arrest. “I hope that [law-enforcement authorities] will not stop there,” he said.