Armenia pushes through judicial reform package

Photo: concourt.am

YEREVAN—The opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) announced on Wednesday that it would not join the Prosperous Armenia Party’s (PAP) challenge to the government’s proposed constitutional amendment, thus removing the last obstacle to a planned overhaul of the country’s judicial system. The amendment to Article 213 of the Armenian Constitution would do away with exemptions for Sargysan-appointed justices to the constitutional court from the 12-year term limits.

The last amendment to Article 213, which had been accepted into law through a highly controversial 2015 referendum, was largely authored by then-Minister of Justice Hrayr Tovmasyan in anticipation of his appointment as Chair of the Constitutional Court—a position he has currently been holding since April 2018. Chief Justice Tovmasyan has been a target of the new administration ever since the Velvet Revolution; he has been accused of abusing the power of his office to shield personalities linked to the former-ruling Republican Party from corruption investigations, as well as sabotaging key economic and judicial reform packages passed by Parliament.

However, Tovmasyan has remained undaunted by repeated calls from Parliament for his resignation, as well as three other justices, which have included various parliamentary motions and generous offers of compensation packages for his early retirement. Parliament ultimately decided to circumvent Tovmasyan by calling a constitutional referendum on the matter. The referendum, which was expected to take place on April 5, was postponed indefinitely due to the ongoing pandemic and then scrapped altogether. 

Tovmasyan and the two other justices in question have deemed this move unconstitutional as well and threatened legal action. They, in turn, have accused the Prime Minister of attempting to stack the bench with his own loyalists and undermine the Court’s independence. In contrast to these allegations, the Expert Commission on Constitutional Reform, which will likely select replacement judges, includes members of all three parliamentary parties, as well as Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, six legal scholars and legal experts from two civil society organizations to ensure impartiality. Political analyst Richard Giragosian said of Tovmasyan’s allegations that “an indignant court isn’t an independent court.” He went on to explain that for the government, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution of 2018 remains unfinished and incomplete, as corruption cases proceed, other reforms accelerate, and former leaders still face criminal investigations on suspicion of past crimes and abuses of power.

The LHK has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the proposed amendment to Article 213 as well as the scheduled referendum, citing concerns over the constitutionality of the proposal on procedural grounds. In an about-face, the party also criticized the decision to cancel the very referendum which they had originally opposed. 

Still, despite deeming the constitutional amendment “unconstitutional” and boycotting the first reading on Monday, the LHK’s decision not to back the BHK’s formal constitutional challenge has deprived it of the 27 necessary votes to formally appeal to the Constitutional Court. The BHK holds only 25 parliamentary seats. LHK leader Edmon Marukyan has explained the decision as resulting from an Armenian legal provision prohibiting Parliament from requesting clarification on laws from the Constitutional Court. Yet he later contracted that explanation, framing it as a strategic decision meant to avoid the appearance of attempting to derail the ongoing trial against former President Robert Kocharyan. The Constitutional Court is expected to hold the first hearings on Kocharyan’s coup-attempt charges on July 7—referring to his actions during the 2008 post-electoral violence that led to the deaths of 10 people.

The government’s proposed constitutional amendment has received crucial endorsement from the Venice Commission—the Council of Europe’s advisory body on issues of constitutional law to which Armenia formally applied for assistance in May. The consultative body’s stated opinion acknowledged the inherent conflict of interest of the Constitutional Court ruling on the legality of an amendment which would replace its own members. However, the final report did include an addendum expressing regret that Armenia ignored its recommendation to keep the current Justices in a transitional role to preserve the Court’s judicial independence

With President Armen Sarkisian signing off on the decree, this amendment could come into force as early as Friday—or one day after being formally promulgated by Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan. Two of the Justices are expected to be removed, while Chief Justice Tovmasyan is expected to stay on after resigning the chairmanship. 

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

8 Comments

  1. Would have been nice to explain what is the amendment? The “last amendment to Article 213” link has this: “If successful, the referendum would pave the way for the dismissal of seven of the nine judges currently serving in the Constitutional Court.” However, still not clear how and why and what part of it holding the corrupted judges.

  2. Thank you for your informative and unbiased article. One thing is certain, the corrupt judges have to be removes as soon as possible. Unless they are taken out from their office and replaced by decent and fair minded judges, we will not see a constructive change in the path to reform Armenia. As a caviat, if these judges, who serve the previous oligarchy, are not removed, our country will continue to be known as the land of the few privileged.

    • On what basis are you calling these judges corrupt? Do you have any proof that Alvina Gumilian is corrupt or just platitudes? What’s happening is that the government wants to remake the high court to their liking. In order to open up space for judges they want to see on the bench, they’ve engineered this gimmick. It’s not about wrongdoing by the existing judges, it’s that they just want to make room for judges they want to install. Can you imagine how much every US president would love to summarily fire Supreme Court justices and appoint their own. That happens in countries like Turkey – also a democracy by the way. Thankfully, there’s still rule of law in the US and branches of government have to find a way to work with each other regardless of how much or little they like each other.

  3. Venice Commission President addresses letter to Hrayr Tovmasyan

    “I have been following closely the developments in Armenia concerning the constitutional amendments. I regret that they are not in line with the clear recommendations of the Venice Commission.”

    https://news.am/eng/news/587933.html

    • Really Aram, that link is your source?

      Cake recipes have more text than that so called “news” article.

  4. There is explanation in the first paragraph, “The amendment to Article 213 of the Armenian Constitution would do away with exemptions for Sargysan-appointed justices to the constitutional court from the 12-year term limits.”
    Sounds like the change would be for the good and democratic.

    • For a sitting administration to pack the court in its favor without a public referendum, it is an obvious “usurpation”.

      When the rule of law is not followed, the legitimacy of government structures is weakened.

    • No, Aram, my Kocharyan-loving friend, that’s not actually the case.

      Armenia’s Constitution doesn’t actually require a public referendum to amend a single article, a simple Parliamentary majority suffices. The Pashinyan Government was going to have a referendum anyway – for the sake of extra legitimacy (even though it wasn’t necessary) – but they cancelled it because of the ongoing pandemic. (Unlike Russia, Armenia apparently puts public safety above political goals)

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