Armenia: Key Suspect Arrested in Diamond Scandal Linked to PM, Archbishop
So what do the Armenian government, the Armenian Apostolic Church and Sierra Leone all have in common? The answer is businessman Ashot Sukiasian, who was arrested in Tbilisi on February 1 in connection with an alleged $10.7-million con-job.
Several years back, Sukiasian borrowed that sum from AmeriaBank, an Armenian concern of uncertain ownership, to invest in importing raw diamonds from Sierra Leone for refining in Armenia, the Hetq.am investigative service reported last May. Diamond-refining is one of the few booming businesses in Armenia, and a key source of exports.
Documents unearthed by Hetq.am revealed that Sukiasian borrowed the money for his own diamond venture in the name of Wlispera Holdings, a Cyprus-based company allegedly co-owned by Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and former Archbishop Navasard Kjoian.
Prime Minister Sarkisian and Kjoian have denied being Sukiasian's business partners, but the ownership documents for Wlispera Holdings have their signatures, Hetq reported.
Sukiasian allegedly deposited the money for this company in a separate bank account he held, and, according to police, failed "to abide by the loan agreement conditions and the business plan he presented," according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which cooperated with Hetq.am on the investigation. In what is described as a joint Armenian-Georgian operation, he was intercepted in the Tbilisi airport on Saturday after reportedly flying there from Istanbul, Armenian news outlets reported. (Sukiasian's name could not be found on Interpol's online list of wanted Armenians, however.) His extradition to Armenia is now in the works, Georgian media say.
Among those, no doubt, eager to hear what comes of any interrogation is fellow businessman Paylak Hayrapetian, who reportedly provided the collateral for Sukiasian's loan, and who has seen AmeriaBank sell off his assets to recoup the loan.
Hayrapetian, who claims he doesn't know Sukiasian from Adam, asserted in a February 3 interview with Aravot.am that he actually was in business with Prime Minister Sarkisian.
The prime minister and Kjoian "and the owners of AmeriaBank are involved in this business," he told the site. Whether or not Sukiasian agrees, "does not matter," he continued, "because there is a document" showing their stakes in Wlispera Holdings.
Prosecutors have yet to interview either Sarkisian or Kjoian, reportedly.
For Armenians familiar with Prime Minister Sarkisian's earlier calls for a serious crackdown on corruption, the irony of these allegations is hard to miss. For those who have watched the Church become, as IWPR reported, "intertwined with the political and business groupings that run Armenia," the scandal provides additional cause for concern.
But how will it all turn out? Part of the potential answer to that question may well be sitting in a cell in Tbilisi.
--EurasiaNet.org's South Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, added reporting to this post.