By Gayane Abrahamyan
As is the case with many small towns around the globe, the hamlet of Akhtala in northern Armenia is a place where everyone claims to know each other. But pedophilia charges brought against Serob Der-Boghossian, the Armenian-American owner of Akhtala’s Metal Prince Ltd. Corporation, the town’s main employer, are putting that assertion to the test.
Der-Boghossian, 68, was detained on February 9 for allegedly paying socially vulnerable teenage boys to engage in illicit activities; or, as the charge read, to coerce “them into homosexuality.” He is formally charged under Article 140 of the Criminal Code, a statute that covers forced violent sexual acts. On February 12, a Yerevan administrative court sentenced Der-Boghossian to two months of administrative detention pending trial. If found guilty of the charge, Der-Boghossian could face a possible prison term of up to three years and/or a fine of 9 million drams (about $25,000).
Charges were filed against Der-Boghossian after the investigative news website Hetq.am published an article in which the site claimed to have secured video material that allegedly documents the pedophilia claims. Der-Boghossian adamantly denies the charge, saying that they are intended “to seize the result of [my] many years’ hard work” at Metal Prince.
Der-Boghossian, a former traffic and transportation administrator for Pasadena, California, came to Armenia in the late 1990s; in 2001, he took over Akhtala’s ore-mining combine, investing, along with five other shareholders, some $12 million in upgrading the facilities. The 600 employees now working for the company represent nearly a third of the town’s population of 2,000 people. Monthly salaries at Metal Prince, ranging on average from 150,000 to 170,000 drams (about $420 to $460), are well above the national average.
Finding someone in the town who has not worked for Metal Prince, or not come into contact with Der-Boghossian in some way – be it through various charitable donations or his involvement in local sports – is difficult.
Sixty-seven-year-old pensioner Petros Movsisian, whose two sons returned from Russia to work for Metal Prince, argued that Der-Boghossian single-handedly reversed the town’s dying fortunes. “Everyone was moving away from here,” Movsisian recalled. Former president Robert Kocharian once acknowledged that Akhtala’s ore-processing plant could provide “good jobs,” Movsisian continued, but the government did not have the money to invest in the company.
“So they [the government] did not want to restore the plant, and now they want to bring that man’s efforts to nothing,” Movsisian said, referring to Der-Boghossian.
Others recollect the financial assistance the mine owner and his wife offered for town residents’ medical problems or other hardships. “There was not a single person in our town that Mr. Serob refused to help if they turned to him, and when they say he only helped boys, that’s not true,” said one Akhtala resident, describing a gift of 800,000 drams (about $2,200) reportedly given by Der-Boghossian to a neighbor for surgery.
Still there are Akhtala residents who are cautious in their appraisal of Der-Boghossian, reasoning that where there is smoke there is some sort of fire. “If people are talking, that means that something did happen,” one elderly resident suggested. “But the question is: why they decided to punish the guilty person now?”
Der-Boghossian’s wife, Madeleine Tashjian, who is also a Metal Prince shareholder, is convinced that there is a “hidden agenda behind the accusation” of pedophilia, but says she does not know whom to blame for that alleged agenda.
“There have always been people who envied Serob and thought; ‘why should an American-Armenian make money in Armenia?’” Tashjian asserted in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.
“Serob is a respected man. He was on good terms with the president [of Armenia], and that’s the nastiest accusation by means of which everybody was supposed to turn their backs on him,” she said, speaking about the pedophilia claim.
Tashjian claims that her husband gave away some 13 million dram (about $35,900) to individuals in 2010, along with some 60 million drams, or about $165,000, in donations to charities.
Some Akhtala residents contend that the village’s mayor, Haik Khachikian, along with his brother, Vazgen, have been the most zealous individuals in wanting Der-Boghossian’s prosecuted.
Vazgen Khachikian, who was removed as head of Armenia’s Social Welfare Service on December 17 after being accused of embezzlement, alleges that he personally saw two video clips, both less than a minute-long, in which “different 14-15-year-old children are with Serob.”
“We (Vazgen and Haik Khachikian) had suspicions about his dirty dealings even about a year and a half ago, but we did not voice them, since we had no proof,” Vazgen Khachikian told EurasiaNet.org. “So, we did our best to acquire solid evidence, including video footage.”
Khachikian declined to show EurasiaNet.org the footage, or to explain how he acquired it.
Mayor Khachikian claimed that “everybody in the town” was aware of the businessman’s alleged sexual exploitation of underage boys, but “kept silent in order not to lose their jobs at Metal Prince.”
In response, Tashjian, Der-Boghossian’s wife, dryly wondered why Mayor Khachikian in 2009 named the Metal Prince chief executive an honorary citizen when the mayor supposedly “knew [of pedophilia by Der-Boghossian] or had suspicions.” The mayor claimed that he did not know of Der-Boghossian’s alleged actions at that time.
Vazgen Khachikian denied accusations of trying to frame Der-Boghossian, describing such allegations as “simple lies.” Khachikian alleged that Der-Boghossian’s summer trips with children “for weeks” to the Tsakhkadzor mountain resort first sparked his suspicions.
Tashjian told EurasiaNet.org that the trips were to a summer camp run by Our Lady of Armenia, a Catholic church – an account confirmed by the camp director. Der-Boghossian, as a benefactor, came to the camp only for donor receptions, confirmed Sister Arousiag Sajonian.
“He had no other interaction with children at times other than during the receptions,” Sajonian said. “We have known that man for a long time, and never has he done anything wrong.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.