Gevorg Simonian was remanded in pre-trial custody after investigators searched his office and rounded up a dozen medical workers on Friday. One of them, Babken Shahumian, runs a private clinic in Yerevan that has treated thousands of COVID-19 patients.
The Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) claimed that the Medline Medical Center rigged records of its medical services to defraud the government of 119 million drams ($305,000) in 2020 and 2021. It said that Simonian did not properly monitor the use of the government funds allocated to the clinic because of his close personal relationship with Shahumian.
Simonian and Shahumian denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, a Yerevan court allowed the ACC to hold them in detention pending investigation.
The criminal case is based in large measure on a report leased by the Armenian parliament’s Audit Chamber last year. It suggested that officials from the Ministry of Health embezzled and/or wasted some of the 26 billion drams ($66 million) in emergency government funding allocated following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In particular, the chamber said, the ministry inflated the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and channeled 900 million drams into hospitals that did not treat people infected with the respiratory disease. It also questioned the integrity of relevant state procurements, saying that many of them were administered without tenders.
The alleged abuses were committed during former Health Minister Arsen Torosian’s tenure. Torosian, who is now a parliament deputy representing the ruling Civil Contract party, rejected the Audit Chamber report as untrue and misleading.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Torosian decried the “fictitious” accusations leveled against his former deputy. The former minister also pointed out that investigators have still not questioned him despite the fact he is the one who “issued those orders” which landed Simonian in jail.
Torosian was sacked by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in January 2021. Throughout his tenure he was criticized not only by opposition groups but also some pro-government parliamentarians.
The criticism intensified during the pandemic which hit Armenia hard. Torosian repeatedly defended his and other government officials’ response to the unprecedented health crisis.