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By Karine Kalantarian
A bitter dispute between two groups of lawyers is threatening to derail the work of Armenia’s newly unified bar association which was supposed to foster judicial independence and rule of law in the country.

The Chamber of Advocates was officially set up in place of two lawyers’ associations that existed until recently and numbered more than 400 members. Its creation was mandated by a special law that came into effect in January.

Yenok Azarian, a young lawyer, was narrowly elected as the chamber’s chairman at its founding congress on March 20. His more experienced and famous rival, Ruben Sahakian, challenged the outcome of the vote, alleging serious procedural violations.

A court in Yerevan opened on Thursday hearings on Sahakian’s and his supporters’ demands for the annulment of the election results. They claim that 9 of 181 attorneys that voted for Azarian had received their operating licenses illegally and must be barred from the chamber. Sahakian trailed his rival by 7 votes.

“This case will denigrate the lawyers’ image,” said Robert Grigorian, a prominent lawyer who represented Azarian in the court. “This dispute will certainly have negative consequences.”

Ara Zohrabian, who represented Sahakian, claimed the opposite. “The chamber formed as a result of violations will lack credibility,” he said.

Azarian is effectively backed by the Yerevan office of the American Bar Association (ABA) which has for been promoting legal reform in Armenia as part of an program funded by the U.S. government. The ABA has been closely involved in the chamber’s formation and says the March 20 election of its chairman was fair and legitimate.

(Photolur photo: Yenok Azarian, left, and Ruben Sahakian.)
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