By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian authorities have launched first-ever criminal proceedings relating to chronic electoral fraud in response to international criticism of their handling of the recent constitutional referendum, it emerged on Friday.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Gevorg Danielian told RFE/RL that three men have been charged with engaging in multiple voting during the referendum and will stand trial soon.
None of them is a member of electoral commissions that conducted the November 27 vote and were primarily responsible for serious irregularities reported by local and foreign observers, however. Nor do they seem to be government officials or other influential individuals.
According to Danielian, two of them are residents of Yerevan, while the third one lives in the second largest city of Gyumri. He said the men stand accused of illegally casting an extra ballot in place of their son, brother and friend respectively. They are facing a heavy fine and up to one year in prison under Article 153 of the Armenian Criminal Code, added the senior prosecutor.
The criminal cases against them were opened after Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian’s December 20 news conference during which he complained that law-enforcement authorities lack “concrete facts” to prosecute anyone in connection the reported referendum fraud. “As a result of inspections carried out by us, no evidence has been found which would give me reason to confirm what has been said,” he said.
Hovsepian had earlier formed an ad hoc commission charged with looking into newspaper reports of ballot stuffing and other irregularities as well as written complaints filed by some Armenian politicians, including parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian.
This is the first time that somebody is facing prosecution in Armenia for electoral crimes that have been commonplace during just about every election held in the country since independence. The November referendum was no exception to this rule, with observers from the Council of Europe casting doubt on the credibility of its official results. They as well as the United States and the European Union urged the Armenian authorities to investigate fraud allegations.
Washington in particular has indicated that such an investigation is a necessary condition for the allocation of additional U.S. assistance to Armenia under the Millennium Challenger Account (MCA) program. Incidentally, a senior U.S. official managing the scheme demanded “corrective steps” from Yerevan in a statement that nearly coincided with Hovsepian’s news conference.
“This does not yet mark the end of our inquiry,” Danielian said. “Discussions are still continuing on a number of materials. We are receiving new reports of violations of electoral legislation.”
The announced criminal cases are certain to be shrugged off by the Armenian opposition which insists that the administration of President Robert Kocharian itself orchestrates vote rigging and is inherently disinterested in democratic elections.