The Armenian parliament passed in the second and final reading on Thursday a government bill allowing authorities to confiscate private properties and other assets deemed to have been acquired illegally.
The package of legal amendments drafted by the government late last year allows prosecutors to investigate individuals in case of having “sufficient grounds to suspect” that the market value of their assets exceeds their “legal incomes” by at least 50 million drams ($103,000).
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.
Speaking during a parliament debate on Wednesday, Justice Minister Rustam Badasian insisted that current and former state officials will be the main targets of what the government portrays as a major anti-corruption measure. But he reaffirmed that it will also cover other individuals, who are accused or suspected of corrupt practices.
“This is an instrument for returning to the state the wealth amassed illegally, often times through corruption mechanisms, and skillfully hidden by persons who abused their position,” said Lilit Makunts, the parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc.
Deputy Justice Minister Srbuhi Galian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Tuesday that the process will be handled by a new division that will be set up within the Office of the Prosecutor-General later this year.
Galian said rulings on confiscations demanded by the prosecutors will initially be handed down by judges to be selected by the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees Armenian courts. Such cases will eventually be referred to a special anti-corruption court which is due to be set by the end of 2021, she said.
The National Assembly overwhelmingly approved the bill in the first reading on March 5. The two opposition parties represented in the parliament tentatively backed it before proposing dozens of amendments.
Only some of those amendments were incorporated into the final version of the bill. In particular, the government agreed to increase the threshold for asset seizures from 25 million to 50 million drams.
The changes failed to satisfy the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK). One of its deputies, Arkady Khachatrian, said during Wednesday’s debate that time frames set by the bill do not provide for speedy investigations into the legality of people’s wealth.
Earlier, LHK leader Edmon Marukian questioned the effectiveness of the entire mechanism, saying that corrupt officials who registered their properties in their relatives’ name may well be let off the hook.
Mikael Melkumian, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), also voiced misgivings. In particular, he said that the bill does not take into account sharp increases in real estate prices that occurred in Armenia in the 2000s.
Nevertheless, BHK deputies were among 91 members of the 132-seat parliament who voted for the bill on Thursday. One LHK deputy voted against and 15 others abstained.
Other critics of the government have challenged the legality of the planned asset seizures. They also claim that Pashinian is intent on a far-reaching “redistribution of property” in the country.
Pashinian has denied having such plans. He insisted in December that 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.