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Armenian security service questions family of constitutional court chair

21 October 2019
Hrayr Tovmasyan. Official picture.

The father and two daughters of embattled constitutional court chair Hrayr Tovmasyan, who was recently accused of ‘seizing state power’, have been questioned by Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS).  

The NSS called the three in for questioning on 18 October, according to them to answer questions that emerged from a preliminary investigation into Tovmasyan. 

The family’s lawyers were not fully informed about the reason for the questions or what kind of case the NSS had launched prior to their questioning. One of their lawyers, Hayk Sargsyan, told reporters that Tovmasyan’s daughters were questioned about property they owned. 

According to Sargsyan, Gohar Tovmasyan, the eldest daughter, was questioned about a car garage she owned in downtown Yerevan which she received as a present from her cousin in 2016. Mary Tovmasyan, the younger daughter, was questioned about her ownership of a 2014 Nissan Sentra which she received as a present from the same cousin in 2016.

The cousin gave the two sisters cars after moving to the United States. 

The NSS also questioned Gohar about a Nissan Patrol car she had previously owned and which she later donated to the Ministry of Defence of Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2016 April War.

The women were not questioned about their father’s work. 

NSS officers also visited the home of Vardan Tovmasyan, Hrayr Tovmasyan’s father, and questioned him. In an interview with reporters, Vardan Tovmasyan claimed that officers asked him when and how he repaired the roof of his house. 

He said he did not let them check the roof and later agreed to go to the NSS headquarters himself to be questioned with the presence of his lawyer.

‘Seizing state power’

The move came after the Special Investigation Service (SIS) launched a criminal investigation against Hrayr Tovmasyan on 17 October, two days after the Constitutional Court rejected a motion by Armenia’s parliament, the National Assembly,  to strip Tovmasyan of his judicial powers. 

[Read more on OC Media: Armenian Parliament votes to strip powers from head of constitutional court]

The investigation is based on a lawsuit brought by independent MP Arman Babajanyan to the General Prosecutor’s Office on 4 October, the day the National Assembly voted to strip Tovmasyan of his powers as Chair of the Constitutional Court.

In the lawsuit, Babajanyan claims that Tovmasyan colluded with officials from the former ruling Republican Party — of which Tovmasyan was previously a member —  to become chairman of the Constitutional Court in early 2018.  

The SIS has accused Tovmasyan of ‘seizing state power or keeping state power through violence’, a crime punishable by 10-15 years imprisonment.  

On 17 October, the SIS conducted raids at the Constitutional Court, the Republican Party headquarters, and National Assembly of Armenia. In a Facebook post, Vice President of the Republican Party, Armen Ashotyan, stated that the SIS had confiscated documents regarding Tovmasyan’s resignation from the party. 

On the evening of 18 October, the NSS published an official statement in which they explained why Tovmasyan’s family members were called in for questioning. 

In the statement, they claimed that there was evidence of embezzlement pertaining to uncompleted construction work for the Ministry of Justice from 2012-2014, when Tovmasyan was the minister. 

They also claimed that there was evidence of embezzlement linked to property belonging to Tovmasyan’s family, which allegedly was never registered with the government. 

The NSS explained in the statement that while materials were being collected for the case, the need to clarify certain unregistered property belonging to Tovmasyan and his family arose. 

On 19 October, the NSS published a follow-up statement claiming that they had tried to contact Tovmasyan through the Chief of Staff of the Constitutional Court, but that he had never answered their calls. They said that written notifications were then sent requesting his family members come in for questioning. 

‘You’re crossing a red line’

During the questioning of Tovmasyan’s daughters, several people held a protest outside the NSS headquarters including prominent members of the Republican Party.

Ruben Melikyan a former Deputy Minister of Justice of Armenia and former Human Rights Defender of Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the organisers of this protest, calling on people to join him on his Facebook page. ‘Do you know you’re crossing a red line?’ Melikyan wrote on Facebook in a statement directed to law enforcement agencies.

During the protest, Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov said that the case was one of political persecution. ‘What is happening now in Armenia is a fake political campaign’, Sharmazanov told reporters. 

MPs from the ruling My Step parliamentary faction have defended the investigation. Vahagn Hovakimyan told Azatutyun that he did not understand why people were upset. 

‘Are they trying to say that the relatives of certain officials can also gain immunity? Law enforcement agencies can’t approach these people?’ asked Hovakimyan. ‘All they did was call them in for questioning. In reality, they can look back at their past to see what real political persecution was like when they [the Republican Party] were in power.’

In an interview with News.am, Deputy-Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan stated that the authorities did not seek to simply ‘get rid’ of Tovmasyan, claiming that the special investigation will ‘show the truth’.

‘The revolution took place to get rid of this vicious practice’

Human rights activist Zaruhi Hovhannisyan told OC Media that corruption had been systemic in Armenia for decades and that Tovmasyan is likely not an exception.

‘All former officials can be charged with [seizing state power or keeping state power through violence]’, Hovhannisyan said. ‘However, if this is being done selectively and no specific reasons are being given as to why one official is being targeted and not another — one that also has ties with the former regime but isn’t causing any trouble for the executive branch — then this raises doubts and concerns toward the system.’

Hovhannisyan said that the Constitutional Court’s stance on the criminal case against Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan makes such concerns only more acute.

 ‘If we look at the facts, then the “noose” around Tovmasyan’s neck is getting tighter and now his godchildren, sister, father and daughters are finding themselves in that noose as well.’

[Read more on OC Media: Competing protests and the death of a witness: month one of Armenia’s ‘trial of the century]

Hovhannisyan believes that despite this, comparing Tovmasyan’s case to the worst instances of political persecution that took place before the 2018 revolution is still inappropriate. She said the abuses that took place under the Republican Party were of a much harsher and systemic nature. 

Nevertheless, Hovhannisyan said this is no justification. ‘The revolution took place to get rid of this vicious practice and not to only change the ruling class’, she concluded.

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