BY MARIAM HARUTUNIAN
YEREVAN (AFP)— A child sex scandal allegedly involving a prominent businessman has shocked Armenia, prompting charges that the country is failing to combat pedophilia due to ridiculously light sentencing.
Prosecutors fear that the country risks becoming a hub for international child sex tourism like certain Asian countries unless rapid action is taken to make punishment more rigorous.
Armenian media widely publicized allegations about sex crimes against teenagers by a businessman who until recently was also an adviser to the country’s prime minister.
The businessman, mining company owner Serop Der-Boghossian, has denied the allegations and said that his accusers were attempting to blackmail him.
The case drew even more attention when Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan wrote about it on his personal blog on Monday, promising that the investigation would be “swift, comprehensive and transparent.”
Prosecutor Artur Gambarian said “the prosecutor’s office is currently collecting materials about Serop Der-Boghossian and will shortly make a decision on whether to initiate or not proceedings against Der-Boghossian on pedophilia charges.”
He also called for tougher sentences, saying that the majority of people convicted of sex crimes against children are not jailed but merely fined. “It’s intolerable,” he told AFP.
“Pedophiles are not rigorously punished by the law, which enables the growth of violence against children.”
Sex crimes against children under 16 are punishable by fines or prison sentences of up to two years, according to Armenian legislation.
There were 18 such convictions in 2009, but only three people were sent to prison, Gambarian said.
“If the laws are not changed and the punishments for pedophiles remain this soft, it is not impossible that pedophiles from other countries, learning that they may go unpunished after committing a crime, will come to Armenia,” he said.
Child protection experts in Armenia — a socially conservative Christian country — believe that many pedophile cases go unprosecuted because parents are often reluctant to report sex crimes against children.
Tatevik Bezhanian from the organization People In Need said that the cases actually prosecuted were only the “tip of the iceberg.”
“We will never learn about majority of (such) crimes as Armenian families keep sexual crimes against their children secret,” she said.
“Parents don’t want society to learn about the misfortune that has happened to their child, fearing the stigma and shame for the child, and (as a result) criminals are not punished.”
The scandal follows another notorious case last year, when a teacher at a residential school for children with mental disorders near Yerevan was jailed for two years for sexual abuse.
Campaigners claimed that the authorities initially tried to cover up the crime by launching a slander prosecution against a young whistleblower who first publicized the schoolgirls’ allegations of abuse.
Child rights advocates also said at the time that a lack of scrutiny of large ex-Soviet children’s homes in Armenia made it possible for institutionalized abuses to continue unpunished.