Corruption in Armenia: Esti Hametsek…
BY OSHIN PEROOMIAN
In what I can only characterize as the twisted modern-day version of “Gikor”, our honorable President, Serg Sarkissian, has repeatedly asked the diaspora to come and invest in the homeland and have an input in making Armenia a prosperous nation. For all those brave souls that are actually considering heeding the president’s call and do not have “friends” in the highest of places in the government of Armenia, I simply offer a story which should give some pause.
In the fall of 2005, I bought a 2,500 square meter land on the hills overlooking Yerevan (in Nork). I purchased this land from Mr. Andranik Ghulijanyan for a total sum of 88,000,000 AMD (about $195,000 at that time). The original lot size owned by Mr. Ghulijanyan was 5000 square meters. Since, I did not want to purchase the entire lot, I requested that Mr. Ghulijanyan split the parcel in two halves so that I could purchase only half the land (the amount I could afford). Mr. Ghulijanyan filled out the proper paperwork at the Republic of Armenia’s (RA) Kadatsr in Yerevan, which is the government body responsible for issuing deeds in the RA, and requested that the deed be separated into two. After doing their due diligence, the Kadastr split the original deed and issued two deeds each for 2500 square meters. As a side note, the RA Kadatsr would not have completed this process if there were any leans or judgments against this parcel of land.
After the Kadastr issued the two deeds, with the help of my lawyer in Armenia, we completed the transaction via notary public and recorded the transaction with Kadastr. The RA Kadastr issued a new deed listing me as the titleholder for the 2500 square meter parcel. To this day, no state official has called into question the legitimacy of my transaction and the deed that I hold. This is an important fact to keep in mind as you read the rest of this story.
In fall of 2006, a few months after my family and I moved to Armenia, I got a call from the Nork-Marash courthouse inquiring as to why I had failed to appear in court. I had no idea what the phone call was about so my lawyer and I headed to the courthouse to ascertain the reason for the verbal summons (verbal summons are illegal in Armenia). To our surprise, we found that the city of Yerevan had taken Andranik Ghulijanyan to court for not properly paying for the 5000 square meter land, which he had originally bought from the City of Yerevan. Since Mr. Ghulijanyan no longer owned the entire piece of the land, I was subsequently included as a defendant in the civil trial. In fact, not only was my summons to court done verbally, the civil charges against me were also entered verbally (both strictly against the rule of law in Armenia). The judge simply saw fit to add the changes against me midway through the trial based on a verbal request from the attorney representing the city.
The laws (in Armenia) are very clear in this matter. I did not purchase my land from the city of Yerevan; and, when I purchased the land, Mr. Ghulijanyan was the rightful owner of that land. My transaction with him followed the letter of the law and thus the only recourse for the city of Yerevan was to sue Mr. Ghulijanyan for the money they were owed for half the land (my half) and request his portion of the land to be returned. As a bona fide purchaser, there are several statutes (in Armenian law) that protect my purchase. The city officials had written in their brief that since they wanted the original purchase agreement of the land with Ghulijanyan nullified, it should follow that I my purchase agreement be nullified as well. Clearly not the case under Armenian law!
During our civil trial, it became clear that a group of people (kadastr employees, bank employees and other officials and civilians) had been arrested for falsifying documents and receipts and pocketing the money that was to be paid into the state treasury for the original purchase of the land (when Ghulijanyan purchased it from the city). It turned out that over a hundred transactions of this type where conducted with a massive loss to the state treasury. The state had started criminal proceedings against the aforementioned group and had seized all their assets. I will not get into how those assets were auctioned off and how much money was actually put into the treasury since no one can actually give the correct number. The items auctioned off were at pennies on the dollar and probably made the corrupt officials handling this case even richer than they should be!! The president of Armenia, at that time the honorable Robert Kocharyan, had come up with a “kam hoghe kam poghe” policy and ordered every one of these landowners (whether complicit or not in the criminal activities) be taken to civil court. It was clear from the judges manning these trials that a fair trial was not going to be possible. In nearly all the cases, the civil defendants were forced to pay what was owed to the state a second time, even “defendants” that were bona-fide purchasers who did not purchase their parcels from the city. Again, I don’t think anyone knows exactly by how-many fold these payments exceeded the original “loss” to the state budget. I was one of the lone holdouts. The lawyers from kadastr and the city said that this would simply go away if I paid what was owed to the city. It really didn’t concern them that I had rightfully purchased the land (and not from the city) and that I had paid much more than the 33,000,000 AMD that the city was asking for (the total sum was 66,000,000 for the 5000 square meter land).
In my original trial, the judge was very prejudicial and did not even want to consider the fact that there were people being held on criminal charges in this matter. Armenia law clearly states that criminal proceedings in a given case supersede the civil proceedings because any evidence and convictions stemming from the criminal trial will have a direct consequence and relevance in the civil trial. The judge did not see it that way and did not want to postpone the trial until the end of the criminal proceedings. We questioned the judge’s impartiality and made a formal request for his removal. The court magistrate, by law, had to take the matter under advisement and notify us in writing whether our request would be granted. About 15 days after our request, my lawyer called and said that he had “heard” that the judge was going to announce a verdict in my case the following day. I was completely shocked. Well, I shouldn’t say that since someone who has lived in Armenia as long as I have, rarely gets shocked at anything anymore. We showed up the next day at the courthouse and the judge was clearly surprised to see us in the courtroom. In fact, none of the other parties were in court. He read the verdict and literally ran out of the courtroom afterwards. We asked the court clerk about the response to our request for the removal of the judge and she handed us the refusal letter after the verdict was announced.
Under Armenia law, one has 15 days to appeal court rulings and we went ahead and appealed the verdict. The case got assigned to the Appeal’s Court (civil division). As an American citizen, I also notified the American Embassy about the “troubles” I was having with the judicial system in Armenia. The Embassy was extremely helpful in many ways. They offered to be at the appeal’s court proceedings and to write letters on my behalf to the Foreign Ministry of Armenia. At the first court session in the appeals division, we asked the three-judge panel to postpone the trial until the end of the criminal proceedings in this matter. The judges said that they would issue their ruling on that motion at the next session. I was very sure that the judges were going to rule against us so I asked the embassy if they could have an official present at the second session. Mr. Jeff Gringer, the deputy consul for the US embassy in Yerevan, agreed to come to the trial. As the session began and we introduced the people in the courtroom (including the deputy consul), pandemonium broke out in the courtroom. What could only be described as a scene from a badly adapted John Grisham novel, the judges called a 15 minute recess and the Kadastr and City lawyers started frantically talking on their cell phones. The court was called into session 20 minutes later and the judges agreed to postpone the trial and grant our motion. I wonder what would have happened if the ambassador had shown up at the trial (although we did not have an ambassador to Armenia at that time).
Fast-forward a few years to the fall of 2010. The criminals were tried and convicted. The state, in their criminal case, had clearly shown that the convicted were the ones who had defrauded the state. So, with the criminal verdicts at hand, our trial began once again. Even if the other laws that I mentioned in the beginning of the article were not enough, now the judges had criminal verdicts in their procession clearly showing who was to blame for the fraud perpetrated on the city. As the case proceeded, it became clear that once again this panel was not going to be impartial. After hearing all sides, they announced that they were going to issue their ruling at a specified date. We went to the courthouse on that date in order to be present while they read the verdict. In a twisted version of “the dog ate my homework” excuse, the judges told us that they had issued the ruling but the computers were not cooperating and they couldn’t read the whole statement of the verdict. My attorney asked if they could read the main ruling (whether they upheld the lower court’s decision or not) and that we would pick up the full text of the ruling at a later date. The lead judge on the panel said that the pages were out of order in the document and the whole computer system was on the “frits”. The computers seemed to be working properly for all the other rulings that they read before they got to ours. I have too much respect for kangaroos to use their name to describe this court. The lead judge said that we should come back in a week and they would read the verdict at that time. A week passed and we were notified in court that the panel had decided to restart the proceedings, the same panel that claimed that they had reached a verdict but couldn’t read it because of issues with their computer system.
In this next “phase” of the proceedings, the judges tried to see if someone would come forward and pay the amount owed to the city so that the matter could be “resolved” via settlement. After exhausting these options, the judges began with a sharp line of questioning for the lawyer representing the city of Yerevan. One judge actually asked, “Did the city sell land to Oshin? No! So why is the city asking for a land which it did not sell to Oshin”. We were surprised that the judges were taking our side and it was refreshing to see them follow the rule of law. We have the official audio-tapes from the trial where the judges harshly criticize the city attorney and tell her that their case is without merit. They essentially say that the correct course of action for the city was to sue Mr. Ghulijanyan asking for monetary compensation for the part of the land that he no longer owned and that I should not have been even included in this trial. The lawyer from the city is heard at the end of the tape saying, “The money owed to the state MUST be paid and we really don’t care who pays as long as it is paid” clearly showing the states intentions in the case (Kam hoghe kam poghe!). All indications were that the panel was planning to overturn the lower court’s verdict,….until the verdict! Clearly there had been pressure from the highest reaches of the government as is the case with nearly all matters involving the people vs. the state or the city. In fact the judges didn’t even read the verdict in court. The secretary gave us the ruling outside of court and said “Sorry, we did everything we could”. The ruling basically upheld the verdict from the first court.
We appealed this ruling to the highest court in the land dealing with such cases, the “Vechrabeg” court.
Today, October 3, 2011, I got a formal letter from the “Vechrabeg” court that it had refused to even hear my case, exhausting all options open to me within the boundaries of the RA. In their letter of refusal, there is absolutely no reason given for their decision.
In all the verdicts handed down so far in this case, none of the judges indicate what law I have broken during the purchase of the land and under which statute I must forfeit the land (because there are none!). Even the judges on the audio recording ask the city attorney “Under which statute are you asking for the forfeiture of Oshin’s land”.
I love my country. In fact, very few have made the decision that my family and I have made, leaving the “good-life” in LA for a better-life in Yerevan. My third child was born in Yerevan, and I am proud that I live in my homeland and contribute to its hopefully prosperous future (in my own way). However, the so-called sovereign judicial system here has left me no choice but to seek justice outside the boundaries of the RA. My next stop in this journey will be the European court.
We often here that the system is simply broken in Armenia and corruption runs rampant. Everything can be bought since everything is up for sale. Well, everyone who has worked and lived here has stories just like the one above, which go a long way to prove that premise.
Oh, what would Gikor think…