A controversial law enacted by the Armenian government last year allows prosecutors to seek asset forfeiture in case of having “sufficient grounds to suspect” that the market value of an individual’s properties exceeds their “legal income” by at least 50 million drams ($95,000).
Courts can allow the confiscation of such 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.
The politically sensitive process is handled by a special division formed within Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General last September.
The head of the division, Siro Amirkhanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that it has investigated more than 200 individuals and believes that at least five of them had illegally enriched themselves or their families.
“There is already enough evidence to file lawsuits [against them] in courts,” said Amirkhanian. He refused to name any of those individuals, saying only that they are well-known figures.
Amirkhanian said his team is planning to appeal to new Armenian courts that will deal only with corruption cases. The special courts are due to be established by the end of this year.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has repeatedly portrayed the law on asset forfeiture as a major anti-corruption measure that will help his administration recover “wealth stolen from the people.” Pashinian has indicated his intention to use it against the country’s former rulers and their cronies.
Opposition groups and figures, among them supporters of former President Serzh Sarkisian, have condemned the law as unconstitutional and accused Pashinian of planning a far-reaching “redistribution of assets” to cement his hold on power.
Sarkisian, several other former senior officials and their relatives are already facing corruption or fraud charges rejected by them as politically motivated. None of them has been convicted so far.
One former official, who used to run the Armenian customs service, decided to “donate” a luxury hotel belonging to his family to the government in late 2018 to avoid prosecution on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering. The government has repeatedly failed to auction off the property which was valued at $15.8 million before the coronavirus pandemic.