A court in Yerevan allowed law-enforcement bodies on Sunday to arrest a wealthy businessman and son of Armenia’s arrested former Finance Minister Gagik Khachatrian who has accused the government of seeking to illegally dispossess his family.
However, Gurgen Khachatrian was not immediately arrested and his whereabouts remained unknown as of Monday evening.
The Khachatrian family has extensive business interests. The most important of its assets is Ucom, one of the country’s three mobile phone operators and largest Internet and cable TV provider.
The ex-minister’s two sons and a nephew own a combined 77 percent of the Ucom stock. Gurgen Khachatrian is also the chairman of the company’s board of directors.
In an April 28 statement, he claimed that “high-ranking” Armenian officials have threatened to arrest him if he and his brother refuse to cede control of Ucom and another major IT firm at a knockdown price. “Ucom is not for sale, neither is our dignity,” he said.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian was quick to respond to the claim, saying through a spokeswoman that Khachatrian and his relatives must return hundreds of millions dollars “stolen from the people.”She said relevant authorities will allow the Khachatrians to sell their Ucom stake only if they agree to transfer all proceeds from such a deal to the government.
Khachatrian’s lawyers said afterwards that the National Security Service (NSS) has brought new criminal charges against him. In particular, they said, he now stands accused of assisting in bribery.
The lawyers confirmed that the accusation is connected to the arrest late last month of Sedrak Arustamian, the top manager of companies belonging to another wealthy businessman, Gagik Tsarukian.
The NSS claims that Arustamian had paid Gagik Khachatrian a $22.4 million bribe to ensure privileged treatment of those companies by tax authorities. It says that the payment took the form of two bogus loans provided to the former minister who was arrested on corruption charges last August.
Both Arustamian and the Khachatrian family insist that the massive cash transfer was a commercial transaction, not a bribe. One of the lawyers representing the family, Yerem Sargsian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service at the weekend that the ex-minister’s sons had borrowed the hefty sum to buy real estate abroad. He did not go into details.
In what appeared to a related development, NSS officers raided the Ucom headquarters in Yerevan on Saturday. They also searched the home and the car of the company’s new executive and confiscated his laptop computer.
The security service did not comment on the searches. Aram Orbelian, a lawyer for the Ucom CEO, alleged that they are part of broader government efforts to nationalize the company employing 1,800 people or “hand it over to another person” in gross violation of property rights guaranteed by Armenian law.
The NSS also summoned Gurgen Khachatrian’s wife and mother for questioning. Both women reportedly refused to testify as witnesses.
Meanwhile, Khachatrian issued a written statement shortly before the court allowed the NSS to hold him in detention pending investigation. The Ucom chairman decried the “illegal” criminal proceedings and said he has no intention to “get involved in these processes as a prisoner” and thereby contribute to further “illegalities.”
Sargsian confirmed on Monday afternoon that Khachatrian has not been arrested yet. But he declined to clarify whether his client has fled Armenia or gone into hiding inside the country. Khachatrian was banned from travelling abroad after being first indicted in January.
“Gurgen Khachatrian is prepared to present himself before the investigating body at any moment if its actions are brought back to the legal field,” said the lawyer.