Rough diamonds at the Diavik diamond mine. Photo: Rio Tinto
Stealing $400,000 in uncut diamonds from a multi-national company doesn’t have the same impact as pilfering $20,000 from “a small, struggling business,” a Supreme Court judge said on Wednesday.
“We, as a society, in my view, have decided that a handful of a particular type of shiny stones is worth as much as a house,” Justice Andrew Mahar said in handing down his decision in the case of the NWT’s record-breaking diamond theft.
“Clearly this is a high-value theft and jail time is called for,” the judge said to the packed courtroom, filled with supporters of Samson Mkhitaryan, media, and legal and mining industry observers.
“In this case, all of the goods were recovered. There was no harm to the corporation,” he said, noting the impact to the employees was similar to what would happen in a theft situation at any type of business.
“The nature of the diamond mining business is one where the diamond mines … recognize the temptation present in their product is extreme … and great security measures are taken.”
That was one aspect of a case with a “very peculiar set of circumstances,” the judge said, that prompted him to side with Mkhitaryan’s request for an 18-month jail term and consideration to be placed on a work-release program.
Mkhitaryan, 40, smuggled 29 rough stones from his employer Diavik Diamond Mines at its sorting facility in Yellowknife.
The reasons Mkhitaryan gave for his crime persuaded Mahar to wave off Crown prosecutor Martine Sirois’s call for a sentence of between two and two and a half years for the one count of theft over $5,000.
Mahar said the sentence had to be considered fair, compared to similar cases.
“The more I considered it, the more complicated it seemed,” said the judge, acknowledging that the diamond industry plays a vital role in the NWT’s economy “and must be protected.”
The judge said it would be wrong to look at the “brute” figure of $400,000 in Mkhitaryan’s case.
“It’s important to note that Mr Mkhitaryan confessed to the crime … and he indicated where the diamonds were hidden,” said Mahar.
‘Shocked’ by value
Mkhitaryan, a married father of three, had no previous criminal record and was working three jobs. The court received “a large volume of letters in support,” in his support, the judge said.
“He was under great financial pressures at the time,” Mahar said, noting Mkhitaryan’s mother had cancer, and had no medical care in the family’s home country of Armenia.
Mkhitaryan and his wife had a combined annual income of about $170,000 at the time of the theft.
“A family of five in Yellowknife, with a house and two cars … doing normal activities … it’s not hard [just] to break even with $170,000,” the judge noted.
Mkhitaryan had earlier pleaded guilty to pocketing $393,045 in rough diamonds amassed over seven different days from December 2017 to February 2018.
At a sentencing hearing last month, the court heard Mkhitaryan had spent less than a month working at Diavik when he began stealing diamonds.
The theft forced the company to interview the 20 other workers in the plant and review its security measures.
“Diamonds are high-value goods,” prosecutor Sirois said. “White collar crimes … there has to be a message sent [that] crime doesn’t pay.”
However, Mkhitaryan’s lawyer Peter Harte stressed the theft was made not out of greed, but mostly out of a sense of duty to needy family.
Harte noted Mkhitaryan helped RCMP solve the case before they even had clear evidence of him having the stolen goods.
When RCMP could not find the diamonds Mkhitaryan had hidden behind pipes in his basement, he drew a map for investigators, Harte said.
“He was shocked to learn the value of the diamonds,” Harte said. “He didn’t know what to do with [the diamonds] … how to get them to market.”