YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A U.S. businessman of Armenian descent and two of his local employees were arrested at the weekend on charges of “malevolently” evading 111 million drams ($290,000) in taxes which their lawyers strongly deny.
Nareg Hartounian and senior executives of his food-importing company GH Storage Enterprise, Ani Mnatsakanian and Artur Galstian, were formally charged in a more than six-month inquiry conducted by Armenia’s State Revenue Committee (SRC). The SRC’s investigative department questioned them as witnesses until recently.
The investigators claim that GH Storage Enterprise, which is owned by Hartounian’s extended family, has engaged in tax evasion since 2009. A Yerevan court promptly allowed them on Saturday to keep the three suspects under pre-trial arrest for up to two months.
Their lawyers dismissed the charges as baseless at a news conference on Monday. One of them, Gevorg Chakmishian, noted that the arrests came shortly after Hartounian challenged the SRC allegations at Armenia’s Administrative Court.
“Nareg Hartounian has repeatedly stated that if the Administrative Court rules that the tax liabilities attributed to the company are legitimate and founded, he will pay those taxes in full,” said Chakmishian. He said his client could not have deliberately resorted to tax fraud.
Another legal counsel, Lernik Hovannisian, claimed that the businessman was arrested because the Hartounian family refused to sell a 34 percent share in a Yerevan company manufacturing watches to a group of government-linked individuals. He declined to name any of them, though.
The SRC could not be reached for further comment on Monday.
The high-profile arrests were condemned by some opposition figures in Yerevan and Diaspora Armenians. They emphasized the fact that Hartounian has for years financed charity projects in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and promoted Armenian culture through his Yerevan-based Naregatsi Art Institute.
Hartounian’s sympathizers also set up a Facebook group demanding his immediate release. More than 1,400 people signed up to it by Monday evening.