By Martin Dimitrov
US arms dealer Ara Dolarian, who lives in Bulgaria, was arrested on May 15 in Fresno, California for allegedly brokering the sale of arms and munitions to the Nigerian government without acquiring compulsory US Department of Commerce and Investment licenses, the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of California announced on Monday.
Dolarian, 58, is also charged with conspiracy and money laundering, the Attorney’s Office said.
According to the criminal complaint filed against him, Dolarian allegedly attempted to broker an $8.5 million transfer of bombs, rockets, military-grade firearms and aircraft-mounted cannons from Eastern Europe and South Africa to the government of Nigeria in the 2013-14 period.
It was not specified from which countries Dolarian planned to purchase the weapons.
He started negotiating the sale and received Nigerian money even though the US Department of State had not given his company the compulsory international arms deal brokering licenses required to complete the deal.
Despite never receiving approval from the US regulators, Dolarian still accepted approximately $8.3 million from Societe D’Equipments Internationaux, SEI, a French arms brokering company acting on behalf of Nigeria, and from the Nigerian National Security Advisor’s office, through a purported Hong Kong-based furniture company.
The money was routed to several shell accounts held by Dolarian and his associates, the US attorney claims, and were immediately used by the arms dealer to pay off his federal and state tax debts and buy a sports utility vehicle.
In February 2015, the federal government seized over $6 million that remained in Dolarian’s accounts.
Dolarian faces 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if he is convicted of unlicensed arms deals. He could also receive five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy, and a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 for money laundering, the indictment says.
Dolarian has been on the radar of the media and US authorities for several years. A 2014 BuzzFeed investigation into his dealings with Bulgarian arms companies said he entered several multimillion deals to purchase armaments and munition that were later resold to the Afghan government and, possibly, US-trained Syrian special forces.
The BuzzFeed report claimed that at least three of Dolarian’s deals went wrong due to the failure of his subcontractors to acquire licensing for the weapons sales, leading to court cases.
In recent years, Eastern European weapons manufacturers and dealers – including Bulgarian – have blossomed, selling billions of dollars’ worth of arms to countries mostly in the Middle East.
US companies similar to Dolarian’s have also become large-scale buyers – and re-sellers – of weapons to third parties in conflict-ridden regions, as BIRN investigations have shown.