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Kristine Aghalaryan

Eminent Domain: In Whose Best Interest?

Artavaz Residents Take Government to Court 41 residents of the Artavaz village in Kotayk Marz have launched a suit with the Administrative Court, seeking to overturn a government decision that has re-zoned 96 nearby hectares as in the "prevailing public interest" and allocating them to the A&M Rare company. During the cabinet session, Economics Minister Nerses Yeritsyan argued the merits of the public domain decision by stating that it was vital for the construction of a water bottling plant in Kotayk Marz. The investment proposal to build such a plant was made by a company called Swiss Rare S.A., whose President is Saudi Arabian Sheikj Muhammed Musallam. On the day of the government session, the company registered A&M Rare Ltd., whose Executive Director is Aram Abrahamyan, the son of National Assembly MP Gagik Abrahamyan. “Swiss Rare” had preliminary delineated about 1,400 hectares of land in the vicinity of the Ulashik River basin in the north-western section of the Artavaz community district. Only forty of the hectares had been envisaged for necessary infrastructure and the plant itself. This area includes state, municipal as well as private lands zoned for agricultural use, according to the ministry reply. The large expanse of te remaining area is explained by the need to form a buffer zone according to international standards to ensure the quality of the waters. Prevailing public or private interest? Attorneys Ara Zohrabyan and Davit Danelyan, who will be representing the villagers in court, point out in their suit that their clients "right to property", as guaranteed in Article 31 of the RA Constitution has been violated, given that the "prevailing interest" is not that of the public but rather the commercial interests of a legal entity; in this case, a corporation. The government, however, argues that the interests of the investment project take precedence ov er the interests of residents whose land will be appropriated since the project is aimed  at spurring economic development in Armenia's outlying regions as well; a vital component of the overall socio-economic policy. "Artavaz is a rural community and thus, the ownership and utilization of land is an important factor in the life of the community's residents. Put another way, the parcels of land re-zoned as in the 'prevailing public interest', are in fact sources of vital, life-sustaining interest for the villagers and rural economies," note the plaintiffs. Furthermore, the plaintiffs claim that granting such "exceptional" domain status to the commercial interests of a corporation cannot be justified in terms of equitable regional development. They write, "What equitable regional economic developments are we talking about when a certain social group, on the area in question, is directly deprived of property of vital importance and the overriding factor for their residing on the land in the first place." In other words, lands vital for the rural economy are being appropriated to a legal entity, for its own private construction purposes. The plaintiffs argue that is only natural to assume that A&M Rare, "are not constructing the plant for benevolent reasons and, rater, that they are looking to make a profit." The Artavaz residents argue that in the absence of such "prevailing" public interest, the government's decision actually violated their right to own property. The plaintiffs are demanding that the government prove its case of "prevailing public interest" and further information as to compensation rates and guarantees. And, in this case A&M Rare has not  presented its case to the government containing such proof of "prevailing public interest", guarantees, etc. Moreover, the plaintiffs point out that the company was officially registered on the same day as the cabinet session, February 25, whereas by law, a review of the company's proposal should have proceeded this action. Thus, in a legal sense, A&M Rare only came into being as an operating entity on February 25 and that it couldn't have presented such a proposal to the government since it legally did not exist prior to that day. A court date has not yet been scheduled. In a conversation with Hetq, the plaintiffs have noted that some Artavaz residents   have not joined the legal suit out of  a fear of creating problems with Village Mayor Rem Hovhannisyan, while others haven't joined due to the financial costs involved. 1.5 hectares of this land in the “prevailing public interest” is owned by former MP Sasun Mikayelyan, Commander of the Sasun Unit who was sentenced to eight years in the March 1st “Trial of Seven”. Mr. Mikayelyan is one of the plaintiffs in the group suit.