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Armenian Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Gevorg Loretsyan has been arrested along with his driver as part of a corruption investigation.
Armenia’s National Security Services (NSS) announced on 4 December that Loretsyan, who coordinated the sports department within the ministry, helped an Armenian businessperson win government contracts for sportswear and sports equipment in return for a large bribe.
Loretsyan and his driver were detained immediately after his driver allegedly received part of the money.
The two were charged on 5 December and are considered suspects in the investigation.
The NSS announcement does not state the name of the businessperson, however, The Armenian Times has reported that it is Hratch Kananyan, the president of Armenia’s FC Lokomotiv. He is also the owner of sports brands Kelme and Givova.
Twenty-five-year-old Loretsyan, a member of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party and a former sports reporter, was appointed in October 2018. Prior to that, he was the deputy head of the Department of State Property Management for a short period in 2018.
During a government Q&A session with parliament on 4 December, Pashinyan brought up the investigation while talking about corruption. ‘State authorities are not exempt from corruption cases’, he said.
‘For example, today — I’m not sure if the news is out yet, but if not, it will be soon — it became known that a high-level official was involved in a corruption case. This is what I mean when I say we are also not exempt. However, we are fighting 100% against such cases. There can be no doubt here.’
‘The law is a top priority’
The news came as a shock for many of Pashinyan’s supporters, including the Education, Science, Culture minister, Arayik Harutyunyan. On the evening the news broke, Harutyunyan went live on Facebook to discuss the case.
‘Keeping in mind the presumption of innocence, I wished to say a couple of words on this corruption case due to what certain media outlets have been writing’, said Harutyunyan.
‘Our political team will always be dedicated to our commitment to cut corruption out from its roots in all its manifestations. It does not matter the amount or who is involved.’
He went on to say that it does not matter how close the person involved in a corruption case might be to them, ‘the law is a top priority.’
If Loretsyan is found guilty, Harutyunyan stated he would be very sad because ‘he is, at the end of the day, one of my deputies.’ Harutyunyan also insisted that corruption was not systemic within the ministry, and if there were separate cases, then those involved will be prosecuted.
During a press briefing on 5 December, Harutyunyan once again stated that people should remember the presumption of innocence.
‘We are dedicated to our commitment to hold everyone responsible in such cases, no matter who they are’, said Harutyunyan. ‘For now, we can only rely on the NSS announcement’, he added.
When asked why Loretsyan had a driver when Pashinyan had stated that deputy ministers should not have personal drivers, Harutyunyan said Loretsyan was on his way to or from the State Committee of Real Estate Cadastre and was using one of the ministry’s service cars.
Harutyunyan also confirmed that Loretsayn was one of the deputy ministers whose salary was secretly raised in July, something which was criticised by many.
[Read on OC Media: Pashinyan criticised for secretly doubling salaries of government ministers]
This is the second high-profile corruption scandal to hit the Armenian Government this year. In April 2019, Head of the State Oversight Service Davit Sanasaryan was charged by the NSS over a corruption case in a procurement process by the State Oversight Committee that would have benefited a private company that is allegedly owned by several Committee staffers.
Sanasaryan has denied the charges. He is currently suspended from his position and is prohibited from leaving the country. The investigation is ongoing.
In a Facebook post on 5 December, Daniel Ionnisyan, founder and programmes coordinator at the Union of Informed Citizens, wrote about certain concerns he had about the Loretsyan corruption case.
‘Within the current information we have, there are certain things that don’t make sense’, Ionnisyan stated. ‘How can a deputy minister who has a monthly salary of ֏1 million ($2,100) accept a bribe that amounts to his monthly salary and receive ֏300,000 ($630) from the total amount through his driver?’ asked Ionnisyan.
‘Why would he risk a 12-year prison sentence for a bribe that amounts to his monthly salary?’
Ionnisyan also was concerned that the NSS detained the driver after he received part of the bribe and did not wait for the latter to give the money to Loretsyan, which would have strengthened the evidence that Loretsyan accepted a bribe.
‘I don’t want to start any conspiracy theories’ he said, ‘however, I have to state that the current head of the NSS is a friend of the former NSS head Artur Vanetsyan, who has had a very hostile relationship with Loretsyan and even threatened to block the construction of a category 4 stadium for the UEFA games. Is this a coincidence?’