YEREVAN—An Armenian court confirmed on Tuesday that it was suspending the trial of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and forwarding the matter to Armenia’s Constitutional Court for review. In a controversial verdict over the weekend, Justice Davit Grigoryan, the presiding judge in the case, again released the 65 year-old former head of state from pretrial detention, sparking protests across the country. The judge claimed to have acted partially on the personal guarantees of Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan and former Artsakh President Arkadi Ghukasyan that Kocharyan would behave if released.
Kocharyan, as well as three other former officials in his administration—Armen Gevorgyan, General Yuri Khachaturov and former Minister of Defense Seyran Ohanyan—have been charged with usurping state power during the March 1, 2008 post-election protests. At least 10 people including eight civilians and two police officers died during the government’s suppression of post-election unrest following the election of Serge Sarkisian. The ex-president is also being charged with corruption.
Many in Armenia, including the families of the victims, personally blame the former president of ordering the violent crackdown. Kocharyan and his supporters have retorted that these accusations are nothing more than a political vendetta by the new authorities. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to office following last year’s peaceful Velvet Revolution, was among the organizers of the March 1 protests and spent two years in prison following those events.
Ever since Kocharyan was first apprehended by authorities, there have been questions about whether or not a former president can even be charged under Article 300 of the Criminal Code (Usurping State Power) since he theoretically enjoys immunity from prosecution. A spokesman for Justice Davit Grigoryan explained that it was on this basis the court chose to release the former president on May 18.
Pashinyan, reacting to news of the release over the weekend, appealed to the nation to block access to all court houses across the country until noon the following Monday. He argued that despite the gains since the Velvet Revolution, the judicial system does not enjoy the trust of the people, nor does it respect constitution. “The people of Armenia continue to perceive the judiciary as a leftover of the former corrupt regime that continues to plot and execute deceptions against the people,” said Pashinyan, who also called for the resignation of the country’s sitting judges and a new vetting process for new judges. He declared on Facebook that the next phase of the Velvet Revolution will take the form of judicial reform.
While the Prime Minister’s comments were met with enthusiasm by some of his supporters, they also proved to be divisive. Few questioned the need for judicial reform, but many found issue with the timing: in the wake of an unfavorable court ruling. A number of analysts criticized the actions of the Prime Minister, characterizing him as more of a revolutionary than a statesman.
This sentiment was echoed among Armenia’s political class. Arman Tatoyan, Armenia’s Human Rights ombudsman reminded the prime minister that the heads of each branch of government have the responsibility to respect each other’s authority in accordance with the Constitution. Tatoyan did not deny the need for justice reform.
Edmon Marukian, leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party, joined his counterparts from the Prosperous Armenia Party on Monday to condemn the prime minister’s call to block access to courthouses. Marukian also demanded an emergency parliamentary session, arguing that Pashinyan’s call to action was unconstitutional. His comments have received support from across the aisle including some members of the prime minister’s My Step parliamentary faction. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) followed suit with a statement condemning Pashinyan’s “step taken against the constitutional order.”
The United States, for its part, urged the Armenian government to pursue judicial reform within the confines of constitutional legitimacy. The US Embassy in Yerevan issued a statement pledging its continued support for justice reform in Armenia, but warned that the process “requires determination, vigilance and a long-term strategy to build transparent and accountable government institutions.”
Some have defended the prime minister’s demands as absolutely necessary. Vahe Grigoryan, the prominent lawyer representing the families of the March 1 victims, believes that these actions could not have come sooner. He argues that the judges have long been instruments of the previous regime who have caused much injustice and suffering among the Armenian people. “I have hope that a new course of reforms will start in Armenia today,” said Grigoryan.
Tensions have been building in recent weeks, both inside and outside the courthouse over the issue of Kocharyan’s trial. During last week’s hearings, a small crowd of the ex-president’s supporters gathered outside the building were met by a much larger crowd of counter-protesters. By the end of the week cheers and insults quickly degenerated into pushing and shoving.
Vardges Gaspari, a well-known activist, who had been arrested during the events of March 1, 2008, received a severe wound when a Kocharyan supporter smashed his face with a glass bottle. His alleged assailant, Armen Tavadian, was charged with grave hooliganism and faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Incidentally, Tavadian is the official owner of Channel 5, which the former president is suspected of being a shareholder.
Some of Kocharyan’s critics took their anger out in other ways. Former ARF Bureau chairperson Hrant Markarian was verbally assaulted by a mob while walking with his grandchildren in Yerevan’s Freedom Square on Saturday. Many among the crowd which included families of the victims from the deadly March 1 clashes hurled insults at the former parliamentarian, calling him a traitor and a Turk. The crowd was dispersed by police. The ARF Central Bureau strongly condemned this incident and called on authorities to investigate the matter.
Markarian’s party has been criticized for its perceived ties to Robert Kocharyan dating back to his presidency. ARF Bureau president Armen Rustamyan, however, has firmly rejected allegations that his party is protecting the former president. In a statement, he explained that the ARF is concerned with “protecting our judiciary and justice. We will continue with the same logic that those who are guilty should be held accountable regardless of their position and status. We will continue to maintain this approach.”
The ARF has voiced its concern over what it sees as increasing polarization among Armenians and a lack of tolerance displayed by the Prime Minister when using populist rhetoric to fuel mob rule in the country. ARF Supreme Body representative Ishkhan Saghatelyan called for a rally to be held at 7 PM Yerevan time on May 23.
The prosecutor’s office announced that it would be challenging the court’s decision to release Kocharyan.