Vahagn Vermishian, the arrested head of the Armenian government’s Urban Development Committee, denies bribery charges leveled against him, his lawyer said on Monday.
The National Security Service (NSS) arrested Vermishian and two other individuals on February 5 hours after searching his office. One of those suspects, John Farkhoyan, is a former senior law-enforcment official. He was released on bail at the weekend.
In a February 5 statement, the NSS said Vermishian has admitted receiving five bribes, worth between 1 million drams ($2,100) and 2.5 million drams each, from private construction firms that were given privileged treatment by various government bodies in return. It said that the kickbacks were channeled into an architectural firm which the official had set up and registered in a friend’s name.
Contradicting the NSS claim, Vermishian’s lawyer, Mushegh Arakelian, said his client denies taking the alleged bribes. “In essence, the version of events published in the media has nothing to do with him,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Arakelian declined to comment further, saying that he will make a more detailed statement soon.
The categoric denial did not prevent a court in Yerevan from remanding Vermishian in pre-trial custody on Monday.
Vermishian, who has headed the government agency since March 2019, is the third senior member of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government prosecuted on corruption charges. The two other suspects worked as deputy ministers of education and health.
Speaking at a February 6 cabinet meeting, Pashinian potrayed Vermishian’s arrest as further proof of his commitment to eradicating corruption in Armenia.
The high-profile arrest came nearly four months after Sarhat Petrosian, the prominent head of Armenia’s Cadaster Committee, resigned in protest against government policies on urban development. Petrosian hit out at Vermishian and the previous head of the Urban Development Committee, Avetik Eloyan, after tendering his resignation.
In particular, Petrosian claimed that Eloyan, who now works as an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian, has used his position to win lucrative contracts for an architectural firm registered in his brother’s name in May 2019. Avinian and Vermishian dismissed those claims at the time.
Petrosian on Monday criticized the authorities for not prosecuting Eloyan as well. “So double standards are still part of our reality, and while Vermishian can be indicted, another official, who found himself in virtually the same situation, cannot,” he wrote on Facebook.