ON Friday December 9, Nareg Hartounian, the founder of the Naregatsi Art Institute, was arrested on suspicions of tax fraud. This arrest marks yet another circumstance of an Armenian from the diaspora being harassed or swindled by the authorities or people with ties to the government. On the same day of his arrest he was tried and sentenced to serve 60 days in jail. This complicated issue with the tax authorities has actually been ongoing for several months. Unsurprisingly, the refusal to pay a hefty sum has something to do with it.
Nareg is a fellow Armenian from the diaspora who lives and works here part of the year. He and his family have initiated multiple projects, both humanitarian and cultural, in and around Nagorno-Karabagh, even in parts of the Armenian controlled territories where he encouraged settlers to live. The Naregatsi Art Institute is a center for young, emerging artists, filmmakers, and photographers to display their works. Musicians even give concerts in the mini concert hall-like setting. Another center was opened in Shushi several years ago.
Hetq already published several articles about Nareg’s arrest, including letters from friends and acquaintences. In one of them someone mentioned that it was high time Armenians from the diaspora were left alone to do their business dealings or philanthropic work without the interference of the government or people with seemingly honest intentions out to make a buck. But Armenians born and raised here have been convicted on trumped up (or even invented) charges for years since there is no independent judicial system. It seems anyone from the upper echelons of the country’s leadership can make a phone call to the Minister of Justice to ensure that someone is tried and convicted by any means necessary. It’s not yet clear who exactly ordered Nareg’s arrest but the truth will hopefully come out in the coming days.
I have met Nareg on two occasions through a mutual friend. Unfortunately I have not learned about his efforts in detail from him, but I have admired Naregatsi and I hope Nareg’s arrest does not in some way interrupt the center’s longevity.
What can be done to help Nareg? Well there is an online petition for starters. There is also a Facebook page created to spread awareness, which as of this writing already has 1003 “likes.” But the only way for the government to resolve the issue once and for all is for the Armenian diaspora to cry foul en masse. That would entail getting leaders from philanthropic and political organizations to get involved. But the success of that effort is perhaps tied to how “liked” Nareg is in different circles and by people of influence.
As with many social and political issues in Armenia, when enough noise is made by people who oppose a controversial decision, the government eventually relents. Unless people become vocal about Nareg’s plight and demand his release, he will sit in jail for another 58 days and possibly face additional recrimination when he’s finally let out, if he doesn’t pack up and leave the country in disgust before then. Let’s work to get him out now.