How much kindness can fit into convicted arms smuggler Sarkis Soghanalian's 300-pound frame? Just ask his ex-wife, Shirley Soghanalian. "He was always bringing home anyone he could find to feed them," she reminisced for the court during her husband's October 23 bail hearing. "He was always giving money away until there wasn't enough for us to pay bills."
Or if you doubt Shirley, inquire of Avedis Hintlian, a disaster-relief expert who assisted with Soghanalian's 26-plane airlift to Armenia in the aftermath of the Soviet republic's deadly 1988 earthquake. "He's gone out of his way to do miracles," Hintlian testified at the bail hearing, two days after a federal jury found Soghanalian guilty of conspiring to smuggle combat helicopters and rocket launchers to Iraq. "I don't think he would ever run. He faces consequences as they come."
As a result of these stellar character references, Soghanalian may not have to sit in jail until his December 20 sentencing. Saying he was "impressed" with the testimony, U.S. Magistrate Peter Palermo decided that Soghanalian, who had been sent to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, was not a flight risk, and recommended he be released on bond until he is sentenced. "It's my recommendation," said Palermo, "that there is a bond that could be fashioned that could guarantee his appearance." Palermo does not have the final word, however. The decision whether to grant Soghanalian bond release rests with U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who presided over the voluminous arms salesman's trial.
But is Soghanalian, once dubbed the Merchant of Death, really the Paragon of Virtue? Is this international peddler of killing machines, who now faces 24 years in prison and fines of $250,000, actually a gentleman of integrity and magnanimity?
Nope, says a group of Armenians from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who allege that the Turkish-born Armenian swindled them out of more than a quarter of a million dollars. The group, the Special Relief Committee for the Armenian Nation, claims Soghanalian had solicited the money from their community to provide prefabricated housing for victims of the December 7, 1988, earthquake, which left 55,000 dead and 750,000 homeless.
The Brazilians had little reason to mistrust their Armenian cousin, who already had won international praise for his relief efforts. In the weeks after the quake, Soghanalian supervised shipments of supplies and rescue workers from North and South America to Armenia, using cargo planes owned by his son's Miami-based airplane company, Pan Aviation. According to Soghanalian, the total cost of the operation amounted to about $3.6 million, most of which came out of Pan Aviation's coffers or his own pocket.
In January 1989, when Soghanalian visited ravaged Armenia, he was decorated by the nation's political and religious leaders. "He was the hero of the Armenians," says a worshipful Avedis Hintlian. "What he has done in Armenia, the Armenians will never forget him in their life. He himself is an organization." And back in the United States, groups from Los Angeles to Colorado to Chicago celebrated Soghanalian and his son, Garabet, for their relief work. President Bush commended the arms dealer, saying his efforts "strengthened the ties that unite mankind." Even Mother Teresa praised the Soghanalians, stating in a letter that God would reward them "a hundredfold for all they have done."
How could you go wrong with a man who had been saluted by the Leader of the Free World and blessed by the planet's foremost humanitarian? The Special Relief Committee for the Armenian Nation entrusted Soghanalian with $300,000 earmarked for 50 prefab houses in Spitak, Armenia. The housing never materialized. Instead, according to a 1990 suit filed by the group in Dade Circuit Court, Soghanalian and his son "misappropriated" the money and became "unjustly enriched by their retention of these monies."
The Brazilians also charge that after they wired the money to the Pan Aviation bank account, the Soghanalians "became incommunicative" despite numerous phone calls, letters, and trips made to Florida by group representatives. "The plaintiff has made demand upon the defendants for either provision of the prefabricated housing or return of the funds," the suit states. "However, these demands have not been responded to by the defendants."
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In a sworn deposition, Soghanalian argued that the Brazilians didn't hold up their end of the deal by wiring another $300,000 for a total pre-agreed package of 100 houses. Furthermore, Soghanalian said, he maintained "continuous communications" with the Brazilians but as the deal began to sour, he was unable to refund their donation because Pan Aviation didn't have the money. This past July, when asked during a deposition what happened to the Brazilians' money, Soghanalian responded, "I cannot tell you right now. Ten thousand dollars was paid here, $5000 was paid there. I assume that it was consumed by Pan Aviation's cashier."
An attorney for Soghanalian, Gerald Richman, says he hopes the Special Relief Committee's complaint against Soghanalian will be settled before it goes to trial in January. "There was certainly no intention to deceive anybody, to harm anybody," Richman insists. The Brazilians' attorney, James Moore, refuses to comment about the suit.
Meanwhile, Judge Moreno must respond to Magistrate Palermo's recommendation for Soghanalian's release on bond. Wary of Soghanalian's easy access to aircraft and Middle East countries, Moreno didn't hesitate to incarcerate the weapons merchant after the arms-smuggling conviction last month. Now the judge will have the opportunity to consider the testimony from the bail hearing, along with another document that now may be added to the file: the Special Relief Committee lawsuit.
Fortunately for Soghanalian, the Brazilians' lawsuit was absent from the bail proceedings. Had she known about the suit before the hearing, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Tarbe, who prosecuted Soghanalian, she would have brought it up. "I thank you for telling me about that," says a rather startled Tarbe. "I'd certainly like to bring it to the court's attention now. I certainly think it casts some doubt on the credibility of the witnesses."