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Former Armenian Deputy Health Minister arrested over alleged COVID embezzlement

13 March 2023
Gevorg Simonyan. Photo via Iragir.am

Yerevan’s Deputy Mayor, Gevorg Simonyan, and the head of a medical centre were amongst eleven people arrested on Friday on charges of embezzling funds intended to fight COVID-19. 

Simonyan held the position of Deputy Health Minister at the time and is accused of ‘not fulfilling official duties due to personal interest, as a result of which significant damage was caused to legitimate state interests’. 

The former deputy health minister’s office was raided on Friday, after which all eleven suspects in the case were detained. On Saturday, a decision was made to keep Simonyan in pre-trial detention for two months. 

Simonyan was elected Deputy Mayor of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in February last year, and served as Deputy Health Minister from 2020 to 2022. 

The criminal case was initiated last summer by Armenia’s Anti-Corruption Committee on the basis of investigations by the government’s Audit Chamber. 

The investigations found that between July 2020 and December 2021, the director of Medline Clinic Medical Centre and at least eight other doctors included incorrect information in the medical records of 385 patients, falsely claiming that they had received treatment in the intensive care unit.

The charges state that the head of the Medline Clinic Medical Centre, Babken Shahumyan, worked together with Simonyan to embezzle ֏119 million ($300,000) from a state-financed COVID-19 treatment programme.

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Both have been charged with abuse of power, punishable with imprisonment from two to six years. 

Arsen Torosyan,  a senior ruling party MP who served as Minister of Health during the pandemic, wrote that the investigation had been carried out by ‘unprofessional people’ using incorrect data, and that the conclusions that were made as a result of the investigation ‘do not withstand any criticism’. 

Torosyan added that it was strange that neither he nor the current health minister had been summoned for questioning, despite his repeated requests to be included as part of the investigation. 

According to the Audit Chamber report published in June 2022, more than ֏26 billion ($67 million) allocated from the government’s fund for the fight against the pandemic was not spent effectively, and that expenditure was not properly controlled or planned.

The report noted that more than ֏900 million ($2.3 million) of salary and bonuses intended to support those working on COVID-19 was allocated to medical institutions not tasked with fighting the coronavirus. The report also stated that the number of people hospitalised was overstated by over 50,000. 

Speaking to Factor TV, Arsen Torosyan said the report had failed to take into account the nature of the pandemic, and that it was not possible to plan in advance what volume and types of work would need to be done, the number of patients that would require treatment, and how many hospitals would need to be reprofiled for targeting COVID. 

‘It is very strange for me that the Audit Chamber does not understand these basic truths’, he added.