By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The National Assembly elected a longtime aide to President Robert Kocharian as Armenia’s new human rights ombudsman on Friday in a second vote in just over a week that reaffirmed its loyalty to the head of state.
Armen Harutiunian, who has advised Kocharian on constitutional law, was backed by 87 of the 131 members of the assembly. His opposition challenger, Hrant Khachatrian, got only 28 votes, slightly more than the number of parliament seats controlled by the Armenian opposition.
“As human rights defender, I will be cooperating with all factions and deputies of the National Assembly,” Harutiunian told lawmakers after the announcements of the vote results. “I will try to live up to your expectations.”
Harutiunian unexpectedly failed to garner the required minimum of 79 votes in the first vote that took place last week. Its surprise outcome reportedly irked Kocharian who discussed the issue with leaders of this three-party governing coalition at an emergency meeting on Wednesday. According to some newspaper reports, he suspects them of secretly undercutting his candidate.
Speaking at the debate that preceded Friday’s vote, opposition deputies accused the pro-government majority of bowing to pressure from Kocharian. “Armen Harutiunian represents Robert Kocharian. Why do you want to impose Kocharian’s candidate on the people?” said Grigor Harutiunian of the Artarutyun alliance.
“Nobody has intimidated anyone,” responded parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian.
One of Baghdasarian’s two deputies, Tigran Torosian, dismissed opposition claims that the parliament majority is effectively nullifying one of the recently enacted amendments to the Armenian constitution that transferred the authority to appoint the human rights official from the president to the parliament. “Whether or not the coalition parties consulted with the president of the republic does not violate any article of the constitution,” he said.
For his part, Harutiunian assured reporters after his election for a six-year term that he will seek to be independent of the executive branch. “I am ready to go against both the government and the opposition if human rights are violated,” he said.
Still, the 42-year-old lawyer made it clear last week that he will be far less confrontational in his dealings with government and law-enforcement bodies that his predecessor Larisa Alaverdian, who earned acclaim from Armenian civic groups during her two-year tenure. The authorities’ decision not to re-appoint Alaverdian as ombudsperson under the amended constitution is widely attributed to her high-profile criticism of their human rights record.
(Photolur photo: Harutiunian, left, accepting congratulations on the parliament floor.)