Armenia’s parliament passed in the first reading on Thursday a government bill allowing authorities to confiscate private properties and other assets deemed to have been acquired illegally.
Under the package of legal amendments drafted by the Armenian government late last year, prosecutors will be able to investigate individuals in case of having “sufficient grounds to suspect” that the market value of their assets exceeds their “legal incomes” by more than 25 million drams ($52,400).
Should the prosecutors find such discrepancies they can ask courts to nationalize those assets even if their owners are not found guilty of corruption or other criminal offenses. The latter will have to prove the legality of their holdings if they are to retain them.
During a parliament debate on Wednesday, Justice Minister Rustam Badasian insisted that corruption suspects, notably current and former state officials, are the main targets of the the bill portrayed by the government as a major anti-corruption measure. The authorities will also use it against crime figures and carriers of “criminal subculture,” he said.
“Nobody beyond this circle can fall under the jurisdiction of this law except in cases where assets were artificially registered in a particular person’s name,” Badasian told lawmakers.
The minister thus sought to allay fears that many well-to-do Armenians will now risk losing their properties. He specifically ruled out the confiscation of assets acquired with remittances received from abroad.
The bill was tentatively backed by 100 members of the 132-seat National Assembly. They included deputies from the ruling My Step bloc and the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK).
Still, LHK leader Edmon Marukian voiced some misgivings about the effectiveness of the measure. He said that corrupt officials who registered their wealh in their relatives’ name may well be let off the hook. Marukian said his party will propose a number of amendments when the bill is debated in the second reading.
The opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) also said that it will propose changes to the bill. BHK deputies abstained in Thursday’s parliament vote.
Other critics of the government have challenged the legality of the government plans for asset seizures. They also claim that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian is intent on a far-reaching “redistribution of property” in the country.
Pashinian has denied having such plans. He insisted in December that the planned asset forfeiture is essential for rooting out corruption and will not be arbitrary.
Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian openly objected to the bill at the time, however. Speaking at a cabinet meeting, the former banker said he is worried that it could scare away investors and lead to capital flight from Armenia.