The Armenian National Security Service (NSS) Department of Investigation on Monday, 8 October formally charged the Civilitas Foundation founder Vartan Oscania in a case that has already become a centre of international attention. Karina Gould followed events in the days leading to the formal charges.
After two days of deliberations, Vartan Oskanian, a prominent legislator with the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, lost his right to political immunity in a 64-6 vote in the Armenian National Assembly on Tuesday 2, October.
The motion was put foward by the Prosecutor General of Armenia, Aghvan Hovsepyan, asking MPs to vote in favour of revoking Oskanian’s political immunity in order to initiate a criminal investigation for allegedly laundering $1.4 million from the charity he founded, the Civilitas Foundation.
The vote was boycotted by all four opposition parties, the PAP, Heritage, Dashnaktsutyun and the Armenian National Congress. According to reports from Armenianow.com, the opposition parties have called the accusations against Oskanian a “fabricated and baseless case.” The investigation into Oskanian and his dealings began on 25 May, the day after the PAP announced it would not enter into a coalition with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), just two weeks following the May 2012 parliamentary elections – leading many political observers as well as members of the opposition to suspect political motivations behind these charges.
As reported in CEW in June, the criminal investigation arises from a $2 million donation received by the Civilitas Foundation from two American corporations, Polymer Material and Huntsman International. The donation was made as a result of the proceeds from the sale of their Armenian subsidiary, Huntsman Building Products. According to a statement issued by the National Security Service (NSS – successor of the Armenian KGB), Civilitas failed to report the donation to tax authorities last year. The statement also claims that $1,135,000 was transferred directly to the bank accounts of Oskanian and Tigran Karapetian, a member of the Civilitas Board of Trustees. While Oskanian has conceded that this donation was not reported to the tax authorities, he maintains that the process was transparent. The NSS also believes that some of these funds which were allocated for charitable purposes were in fact used by Oskanian for private matters. In his appeal to the National Assembly last week, Hovsepyan stated, “Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s Office defends the interests of the Civilitas Foundation and the good name of the Huntsman family. We are not saying why have you [Oskanian], or have not, spend the money. We are solely maintaining that you have appropriated $181,000 from the money spent at your [Oskanian’s] discretion.”
However, Tigran Atanesyan, one of Oskanian’s lawyers, has responded that the transaction between the Huntsman family and Oskanian was done with “the consent of all parties [including the Civilitas Foundation], for an indefinite period of time and to be used at his discretion.” Neither the Huntsman Family nor the Civilitas Foundation need or ask for the Prosecutor General’s protection, he added. Noting that the full amount, plus interest has been transferred from Mr. Oskanian’s account to the Civilitas account, Mr. Atanesyan wondered, “[i]f this is called embezzlement in our country, then I have no other legal interpretation of this.” The lawyer added that such a case was a deliberate move to discredit Oskanian’s political reputation.
It’s not just Oskanian and his legal team that are raising concerns over the motives of this investigation. Many political observers are also weary about the timing. The donation was made in January 2011, yet the NSS only became interested following PAPs decision not to support the RPA. “It’s hard to believe the timing was a coincidence,” said Ophelia Harutyunyan, who worked as a producer at CivilNet, the independent media website of the Civilitas Foundation. The Prosecutor General stated that the case is not politically motivated. “The case is under investigation, and the objective of the petition is [to conduct] an uninhibited and impartial investigation.”
Former President, Robert Kocharyan, extended his support to Oskanian in a statement released on 3 October. “This is a case of the parliament discrediting itself, [together] with the adverse consequences to the country’s standing,” he stated. “Vartan Oskanian was one of the most successful ministers and an Armenian politician who withstood the test of the authorities. He is effective and noble. He is exceptionally righteous. Such people need to be cherished and not persecuted,” stated Kocharyan. Concluding, “the absurdity of this entire story is disappointing.”
Both the U.S. And German embassies have released statements that they will be following this case very closely, cautioning the Armenian authorities against selective law enforcement. Should Oskanian be found guilty, he could face between four and twelve years in prison. Furthermore, concerns have been issued about the potential to freeze the bank accounts of the Civilitas Foundation should the case go to court.
The Civilitas Foundation was founded by Oskanian in 2008 and is involved in the promotion of democracy and the strengthening of civil society in Armenia. It receives considerable financial and moral support from the governments of the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States as well as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Oskanian resigned from the board of trustees prior to announcing his return to politics