By Gayane Abrahamyan
The sentencing of an Armenian-American businessman to 15 years in prison for the sexual abuse of minors has broken a long-standing taboo in Armenia on public discussions of pedophilia.
Seventy-year-old Serop Der-Boghossian, the co-owner of a successful mining company, Metal Prince Ltd. Corporation, in the northern region of Lori, had enjoyed a reputation as a generous philanthropist and an influential businessman with ties to Armenia’s political elite. He formerly served as an economics adviser to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and as a member of the national police advisory council.
When Der-Boghossian, a former traffic and transportation administrator for Pasadena, California, was detained this February on charges of forcing young boys into sexual acts, many residents in Akhtala, where Metal Prince is based, suspected that the case shielded a government attempt to take over the mining company he had run for the past decade. Der-Boghossian, however, admitted in court to having had sexual relations with 10 underage boys, ranging in age from 10 to 16 years old; an admission apparently prompted by video footage found in his house. The prosecution argued that Der-Boghossian’s alleged payment of $120,000 to the boys, all from poor families, had motivated their participation.
In its November 18 ruling, the Lori regional court imposed on the elderly businessman the maximum sentence for sexual abuse of minors via coercion, arguing that the 10 boys are “future soldiers” whose lives have been ruined since “society is intolerant toward victims of such coercion.” Der-Boghossian claims that he never forced the boys, to have sex with him, and is considering an appeal; an affirmative ruling could mean up to three years of prison rather than 15.
The case — and that of boarding school teacher Levon Avagyan in 2010 — has marked a turning point for the general public, many of whom had argued that such crimes are impossible in a family-centric country like Armenia that places heavy cultural emphasis on the value of children.
Sixty-eight-year-old Petros Movsisian, a resident of Akhtala, who earlier had doubted the charges against Der-Bothossian, described himself as floored by the trial’s outcome. “No such thing would ever have occurred to anybody,” Movsisian asserted. “But if he admits his guilt, nothing’s left to say other than that this is a disgrace for our nation.”
One psychologist who works with sexual child abuse cases argues that the outcry over Der-Boghossian signals that the taboo of silence on the topic has been broken finally. “Similar cases happened before, too, however, everything was kept within the family,” commented psychologist Ruben Poghosian from Yerevan’s Ayg Center for Psychological Services. Poghosian claims that psychologists are seeing more such cases, including sexual abuse by family members; he attributes such abuse to “the influence of TV programs, soap operas, violent movies.”
Police data shows only a slight increase in the number of such cases – from 63 to 80 — reported between 2008 and 2010.
Independent MP Victor Dallakian argues that the data “is, of course, only the visible tip of the iceberg.” Enraged by the Der-Boghossian case, Dallakian has drafted amendments to Article 142 of the criminal code that would stipulate either chemical castration or up to 10 years in prison as a punishment for convictions on sexual abuse of minors. Currently, the law specifies a maximum of three years in prison and a 7-million-dram ($18,000) fine as punishment. Parliament is expected to discuss the amendments in a few weeks’ time.
“Many parents are simply keeping silent,” continued Dallakian. “The reality is much more appalling and the law is imperfect.”
Dallakian showed EurasiaNet.org police statistics, indicating that only 10-percent of the 100 individuals convicted of sexual abuse of minors from 2000-2010 were put behind bars. In other cases, the culprit had to pay the fine, but was let go.
Dallakian argues that dropping the fine, and adding chemical castration will serve as a more potent deterrent. “Chemical castration is applied in a number of European countries, such as Germany and the Czech Republic. It is justified because, from a medical point of view, paedophilia is a disease that cannot be treated by one or two years of imprisonment.”
Some Armenian human rights activists oppose the idea because “there is always the possibility that [chemical castration] might be used against innocent people.”
“We shouldn’t forget how many innocent people have been ill-served by the faulty court system. Such a law is premature. We are not ready, we do not have an independent court system, and this can be used as a tool for persecution” of government opponents, commented Michael Danielian, chairperson of the Helsinki Association of Armenia.
Psychologist Poghosian believes the looming debate over the amendments marks a significant step forward for addressing the issue of sexual abuse of children. “Most importantly, there is a willingness to break the taboo,” he said. ”These discussions are vital in order for the wrongdoers, who are still unpunished because of [the victims’ families’] shame and silence, to be identified and punished.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.