Thursday, April 1, 2021 Prosecutors In No Rush To Seek First Asset Seizures • Naira Bulghadarian Armenia - An abandoned hotel complex in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor nationalized by the Armenian government in 2019. A senior prosecutor indicated on Thursday that Armenian law-enforcement authorities will likely wait until the end of this year before trying to confiscate assets of former officials suspected of illegal enrichment. A controversial law enacted by the Armenian government last year allows prosecutors to seek asset forfeiture in case of having “sufficient grounds to suspect” that the market value of an individual’s properties exceeds their “legal income” by at least 50 million drams ($95,000). Courts can allow the confiscation of such assets even if their owners are not found guilty of corruption or other criminal offenses. The latter will have to prove the legality of their holdings if they are to retain them. The politically sensitive process is handled by a special division formed within Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General last September. The head of the division, Siro Amirkhanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that it has investigated more than 200 individuals and believes that at least five of them had illegally enriched themselves or their families. “There is already enough evidence to file lawsuits [against them] in courts,” said Amirkhanian. He refused to name any of those individuals, saying only that they are well-known figures. Amirkhanian said his team is planning to appeal to new Armenian courts that will deal only with corruption cases. The special courts are due to be established by the end of this year. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has repeatedly portrayed the law on asset forfeiture as a major anti-corruption measure that will help his administration recover “wealth stolen from the people.” Pashinian has indicated his intention to use it against the country’s former rulers and their cronies. Opposition groups and figures, among them supporters of former President Serzh Sarkisian, have condemned the law as unconstitutional and accused Pashinian of planning a far-reaching “redistribution of assets” to cement his hold on power. Sarkisian, several other former senior officials and their relatives are already facing corruption or fraud charges rejected by them as politically motivated. None of them has been convicted so far. One former official, who used to run the Armenian customs service, decided to “donate” a luxury hotel belonging to his family to the government in late 2018 to avoid prosecution on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering. The government has repeatedly failed to auction off the property which was valued at $15.8 million before the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities Unfazed By Concerns About AstraZeneca Vaccine • Narine Ghalechian Vials labeled "AstraZeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed AstraZeneca logo, March 10, 2021. Health Minister Anahit Avanesian said on Thursday that Armenian authorities will start administering AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine later this month despite lingering questions about its safety. Armenia received on Monday the first 24,000 doses of the vaccine from COVAX Facility, the World Health Organization’s global vaccine-sharing scheme. The Ministry of Health said they will be made available to medical workers, care home personnel, persons aged 65 and older as well as younger people suffering from chronic diseases. More than a dozen European countries halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine last month after reports linked it to a rare blood clotting disorder in a very small number of people. Some of them, including Germany and France, resumed inoculations after the European Union’s drug regulator said it is safe. Avanesian said that there has been no scientific evidence of grave side effects caused by the vaccine. “We will use AstraZeneca and all other vaccines which are effective and meet all safety requirements, according to the findings of international expert bodies,” she told journalists. “Some countries have temporarily stopped using a certain amount [of vaccine shots] while others have again started doing that. There are also countries that never refused [the AstraZeneca vaccine,]” she said. Armenia -- Health Minister Anahit Avanesian speaks during a cabinet meeting in Yerevan, March 11, 2021. Avanesian said the Armenian health authorities will therefore start distributing the vaccine to policlinics across the country on Monday. Policlinic medics are already being trained to properly inoculate individuals eligible for the first shots, added the minister. The authorities are launching their first vaccination campaign amid what they describe as a third wave of coronavirus infections that has overwhelmed Armenian hospitals. The Ministry of Health reported earlier on Thursday that 28 more people infected with COVID-19 have died in the past 24 hours. It registered almost 1,100 single-day coronavirus cases. Avanesian said that the hospitals will set up this week an additional 300 beds for COVID-19 patients in need of intensive therapy. “Hospital beds are not unlimited,” she warned. Armenia -- Healthcare workers wearing protective gear are seen outside the Nork Hospital for Infectious Diseases, Yerevan, June 5, 2020. So far only several hundred people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus in the country of about 3 million. The Armenian government reportedly plans to buy 15,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. It is also understood to expect more vaccine deliveries through the COVAX scheme. But the government has given no indications that it is planning to inoculate most Armenians this year. Avanesian implied in February that people not included in “high risk” categories of the population will have to pay for their vaccination at private medical centers. Armenian Parliament Approves Changes To Electoral System • Naira Nalbandian Armenia - The Armenian parliament debates amendments to the Electoral Code, Yerevan, April 1, 2021. The National Assembly approved on Thursday major amendments to Armenia’s Electoral Code which some opposition parties say are aimed at helping Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian win snap parliamentary elections expected in June. The government-backed amendments passed in the first reading changed the legal mechanism for electing the country’s next parliament. Armenians have until now voted for not only parties and blocs but also their individual candidates running in nationwide constituencies. In the last two general elections, parliament seats were equally distributed among candidates picked through national party lists and individual races. The amendments backed by only pro-government lawmakers mean that the forthcoming elections will held only on a party list basis. Pashinian announced last week his administration’s decision to switch the electoral system to a fully proportional one. He claimed that none of the two opposition parties represented in the current parliament objects to that. However, one of those parties, Bright Armenia (LHK), spoke out against changing the electoral system. LHK leader Edmon Marukian accused Pashinian and the ruling My Step bloc of resorting to partisan gerrymandering when he spoke during a short parliament debate on the proposed amendments. He said the authorities must not hastily change the “rules of the game” less than three months before the anticipated elections. “I am officially declaring that from now on the legitimacy of the elections is in doubt,” Marukian said. “With your new Electoral Code you are digging your political grave. This will be your end.” Marukian also said that earlier this year the parliament’s pro-government majority drafted different amendments to the Electoral Code and sent them to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for examination. “You have fooled the Venice Commission,” he charged. Ruben Rubinian, a senior My Step lawmaker, rejected the criticism. “Yes, the rules of the game are being changed right before the elections, but they are being liberalized,” he said. Rubinian argued that Marukian himself advocated the abolition of individual constituencies as recently as in 2018. The other parliamentary opposition party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK), has not publicly backed or opposed the amendments. BHK deputies did not take part in Thursday’s debate and ensuing vote. Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2021 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.