The closed-door trial of a prominent American-Armenian entrepreneur in Armenia is highlighting concerns about the concept of presumption of innocence. Although few details are known about the government’s case against the defendant, who is facing child sex-related charges, many involved in the case appear to be assuming the worst.
Serop Der-Boghossian, the 69-year-old co-owner of Metal Prince Ltd. Corporation and a former advisor to Prime Minister Tikran Sarkisian, was arrested in February and initially charged with forcing boys to engage in illicit sexual activities and coercing “them into homosexuality.” The government later upgraded the charge to “forced sexual acts performed on under-age” victims, a crime that carries a potential 15-year prison sentence.
Der-Boghossian’s trial opened on July 6 in Lori, the northern province where, for the past 10 years, he has operated an ore mine near the village of Akhtala. He denied the initial charge against him, saying that it was intended as a ploy “to seize the result of [my] many years’ hard work” at Metal Prince.
As co-owner of Akhtala’s largest employer, Der-Boghossian -- who once worked as a traffic engineer for Pasadena and Beverly Hills, California, -- gained a local reputation as a generous benefactor, providing employees with relatively large compensation packages and handing out assistance to those in need. As a onetime associate of Prime Minister Sarkisian and member of the Police Public Council, an advisory group, his influence was considered a given.
Some critics have charged that the criminal case stems from an alliance gone sour or, alternatively, an interest in acquiring control over the Metal Prince Ltd. Corporation.
With the trial closed to the public at Der-Boghossian’s request, the ability to evaluate the state’s case against the accused is difficult. Der-Boghossian himself has not released any statements or spoken with reporters since the trial began.
Information about the proceedings depends, therefore, largely on second-hand accounts. After the trial’s July 27 session, prosecutor Aram Amirzadian claimed that “Der-Boghossian does not deny that there were sexual acts.” If that remark is accurate, it would be a complete reversal from Der-Boghossian’s earlier assertions of innocence.
“There is nothing to deny. He videotaped it himself and now his own footage is being watched in the courtroom. Now the only struggle of the defense counsel is to prove that the boys were not under-age,” Amirzadian told EurasiaNet.org.
The General Prosecutor’s Office alleges that the mine owner used gifts and payments to induce boys from economically underprivileged families to engage in sexual acts with him.
Defense counsel Tigran Safarian told EurasiaNet.org that the defense has some “reservations” about the conduct of the trial and investigation, but declined to elaborate. “I’m keeping quiet about this only because it’s a defense tactic. I cannot say more,” Safarian said.
Possible public reaction might also play a role. The scandalous allegations connected with the case reportedly made it difficult earlier for Der-Boghossian to find a defense lawyer.
“This is such a problematic and terrible case in terms of its morality that even great sums of money cannot make [many lawyers] overcome a purely human psychological barrier and defend such a crime, and yet every man has a right to defense,” said Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor office of the human rights group Helsinki Assembly.
Sakunts claims that “the investigation was not done completely, objectively and comprehensively.” The reason why local government officials had not raised objections earlier to Der-Boghossian’s alleged activities was not discussed, he said.
“I think that in this case there is a clash of political and economic interests that is simply disguised under a crime,” said Sakunts. “These issues should also be considered.”
“Of course, he must be held liable, if all this is proved to be true,” Sakunts continued, referring to the criminal charges. “But all those who knew about these things and kept it secret because of mutual interests should also be held liable.”
Saying only that “everything will be said at the proper time,” defense attorney Safarian declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the parents of some of the alleged victims believe enough has been said already. After the trial’s July 26 session, parents of four alleged under-age victims lambasted reporters for their coverage of the case. A particular warning was given to a reporter from Hetq.am, the online news site whose article about the allegations against Der-Boghossian prompted the state investigation. “You are still going to answer for this,” one parent told the reporter.
Amirzadian noted that parents of the alleged victims still do not acknowledge that any harm came to their sons.
Six alleged victims already have testified during the trial. Prosecutors earlier claimed that they had identified “approximately 21” victims, but there was no evidence to substantiate all the alleged instances of criminal activity, Amirzadian said.
One child welfare specialist who met with the alleged victims termed the reluctance to confront any possibility of sexual abuse “natural.”
“Both the children and the parents there continue to consider that man a hero,” said Mira Antonian, executive director of the FAR Children’s Support Center, a non-profit organization that works with at-risk children, in reference to Der-Boghossian. “This is a difficult process, since everything was done under the veil of charity.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.