Gagik Khachatrian, a former Armenian finance minister, and his nephew went on trial on Wednesday one year after being arrested on corruption charges denied by them.
The two men were initially charged with a large-scale “waste” of government funds. The National Security Service (NSS) claimed that Khachatrian hired and registered employees who never reported for work when he headed the State Revenue Committee (SRC) from 2008-2014. His indicted nephew Karen held another senior position in the government agency comprising Armenia’s tax and customs services.
Law-enforcement authorities brought several more criminal charges against Khachatrian earlier this year. They accused him of abuse of power, forgery and bribery. The crimes allegedly committed by him cost the state more than 20 billion drams ($41 million) in financial damage, according to them.
Khachatrian, who served as finance minister in former President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration from 2014-2016, rejected the fresh accusations as well.
Over the past year Armenian courts have repeatedly refused to release him from custody despite his apparent health problems. The 64-year-old spent three months in a Yerevan hospital earlier this year.
Khachatrian was absent from the opening session of his trial. In a letter to the presiding judge read out by one of his lawyers, he said that he is too frail to attend the court hearing.
One of the lawyers, Yerem Sargsian, said that his client now has trouble standing on his feet and moving because of spinal cord problems. Sargsian renewed his demands for the ex-minister’s release from jail.
One of the trial prosecutors countered, however, that Khachatrian should remain under arrest because he could obstruct justice if set free. The prosecutor noted in that regard that Khachatrian’s two sons went into hiding in early May after being also indicted by the NSS.
One of the sons, Gurgen Khachatrian, is the chairman of Ucom, a leading Armenian telecommunication operator controlled by the ex-minister’s extended family. In an April 28 statement, he claimed that “high-ranking” officials have threatened to arrest him if the family refuses to sell its 77 percent stake in Ucom at a knockdown price.
Responding to that claim, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said through a spokeswoman that Gagik Khachatrian and his relatives must return hundreds of millions dollars “stolen from the people.” She said authorities will allow the Khachatrians to sell Ucom only if the latter agree to transfer all proceeds from such a deal to the government.
Khachatrian was dogged by corruption allegations throughout his tenure, with some Armenian media outlets and opposition figures accusing him of using his position to become one of the country’s richest men. They pointed to his family’s extensive business interests, which include not only Ucom but also a shopping mall, a car dealership and a luxury watch store in Yerevan.
Khachatrian repeatedly denied ownership of these and other businesses, saying that they belong to his two sons and other relatives.