An influential archbishop has been charged with fraud and money laundering amid mounting tensions between Armenia’s political leadership and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In a statement released late on Wednesday, the National Security Service (NSS) claimed that Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan had colluded with an Armenian businessman to defraud another entrepreneur.
Although the statement named no names, it clearly referred to Ashot Sukiasian, who was convicted in December 2017 of having misappropriated most of a $10.7 million loan which his former business partner, Paylak Hayrapetian, borrowed from an Armenian commercial bank in 2012. Sukiasian had pledged to invest that money in diamond mining in Sierra Leone. He never did that, according to prosecutors.
A district court in Yerevan sentenced Sukiasian to 16 years in prison. However, Armenia’s Court of Appeals shortened the sentence and released the disgraced businessman from prison in January this year.
Sukiasian was arrested in Georgia, extradited to Armenia and charged with fraud, money laundering and tax evasion in 2014 after Hetq.am discovered that Hayrapetian’s money was transferred to the offshore bank accounts of several Cyprus-registered companies. The investigative publication disclosed a document purportedly certifying that one of those firms is co-owned by Sukiasian, then Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and Archbishop Kchoyan.
Both Sarkisian, who resigned as prime minister in April 2014, and Kchoyan strongly denied having any stakes in the company, saying that it was registered in their names in Cyprus without their knowledge. Sukiasian likewise claimed to have forged their signatures.
The NSS statement said that Kchoyan, who heads the Armenian Apostolic Church’s largest diocese econmpassing Yerevan and the southern Ararat province, owned 33 percent of the offshore company. It said that he convinced Sukiasian to cover up his involvement in the scam.
The statement said nothing about the company’s other owners. Nor did it make any reference to Tigran Sarkisian, who now lives and works in Russia.
Kchoyan on Thursday denied through a lawyer the accusations brought against him. “Let them present a single piece of evidence that the archbishop was offered or given a single penny from that sum,” the lawyer, Hovik Arsenian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Reacting to the accusations, the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Armenian Church urged government officials and media to respect Kchoyan’s presumption of innocence.
In a statement, it also described as “bewildering” the fact that the NSS announced the charges one day after the church’s supreme head, Catholicos Garegin II, called for the release on health grounds of the jailed former President Robert Kocharian.
“Although this fact causes some concerns, the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin hopes and will strive to ensure that an impartial and comprehensive investigation is conducted as part of the criminal case,” read the statement.
Garegin’s call for Kocharian’s release was criticized by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s office. It prompted angry reactions from Pashinian’s political allies and supporters. Some of them demanded his resignation.
Kchoyan has long faced criticism from Armenia media outlets for his behavior and lifestyle seen as too earthly. He also sparked controversy by participating and even speaking at political gatherings organized by the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The archbishop personally blessed HHK leader Serzh Sarkisian at a February 2008 campaign rally held in the run-up to a dispute presidential election.