A court in Yerevan on Sunday refused to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman leading the main opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), on charges strongly denied by him.
The National Security Service (NSS) charged Tsarukian with vote buying and moved to arrest him after the Armenian parliament lifted his immunity from prosecution on June 16.
The NSS says that Tsarukian “created and led an organized group” that bought more than 17,000 votes for the BHK during parliamentary elections held in 2017. It claims to have collected documents and testimony showing that the vote bribes were handed out to residents of the Gegharkunik province.
Tsarukian and his political allies reject the accusations as politically motivated. They say that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian ordered the criminal proceedings in response to the BHK leader’s recent calls for the Armenian government’s resignation.
Pashinian flatly denied that and any other political motives when he spoke in the parliament controlled by his My Step bloc on June 17. “We don’t need to turn criminal cases into subjects of political horse-trading so that they make fewer [anti-government] statements or watch their language,” he said.
The district court in the Armenian capital rejected the arrest warrant request for Tsarukian following three-day hearings that ended on Friday. It did not immediately publicize its reasons for the decision.
Tsarukian refused to talk to journalists when he came out of the court building in Yerevan moments after the announcement of the decision. “Ask my lawyers,” he said before getting in his car.
“I am happy that the court proved strong enough to stay away from political processes,” said one of the lawyers, Yerem Sargsian. He suggested that during the hearings the court found his and his colleagues’ arguments against Tsarukian’s arrest convincing.
The defense lawyers said earlier that the NSS failed to come up with any compelling evidence of Tsarukian’s involvement in the alleged distribution of vote bribes. They also accused the investigators of serious procedural violations of the due process.
Armenian prosecutors condemned the court’s refusal to sanction Tsarukian’s pre-trial arrest as “baseless and illegal” and said they will appeal against the ruling.
A spokesman for Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian said that the court “ignored” legitimate justifications of the arrest presented by the investigators. The official, Gor Abrahamian, said that Tsarukian could obstruct the investigation and exert “illegal influence” on other suspects in the case if he is not placed under arrest.
The BHK has the second largest group in the Armenian parliament, having finished second in the last general elections held in December 2018. Tsarukian’s party had joined Pashinian’s first cabinet formed following “Velvet Revolution” of April-May 2018. Pashinian fired his BHK-affiliated ministers in October, accusing Tsarukian of secretly collaborating with the country’s former leadership toppled in the revolution.
Addressing senior BHK members on June 5, Tsarukian accused the government of mishandling Armenia’s coronavirus crisis and failing to mitigate its socioeconomic consequences. Pashinian and his loyalists reacted angrily to that speech.
Tsarukian again linked the criminal case against him to the speech when he spoke to reporters on Friday. “If I am to blame for this situation in the country, the spread of the [coronavirus] epidemic, this poverty and economic decline, I am ready to go [to jail,]” he said.