By Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s courts have grown even more subservient to law-enforcement authorities in recent years, routinely condoning human rights abuses and passing unjust guilty verdicts, a prominent lawyer who heads the national bar association claimed on Thursday.
Ruben Sahakian, the recently elected chairman of the Armenian Chamber of Advocates, said winning a court battle with state prosecutors is now practically impossible even for experienced trial attorneys.
“This is a fact,” he told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan. “In recent years it has become very difficult for us to do our job. This also applies to those lawyers who used to brag about winning 95 percent of cases.”
Sahakian, who has been a defense lawyer in some of the most-profile trials held in Armenia since independence, cited another well-known attorney, Marina Janoyan, as confessing to him recently that she “can’t operate anymore” because of her declining ability to defend her clients.
Acquittal of criminal suspects is extremely rare in Armenia, with various-level courts usually accepting charges leveled by the prosecution and handing down jail sentences demanded by the latter. There have been virtually no reported cases of Armenian judges refusing to accept pre-trial testimony extracted under duress, a practice which human rights groups say is widespread. In a report last year, Armenia’s first human rights ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdian, concluded that court bias against defendants is “constantly evident.”
Public trust in the Armenian judiciary declined further after brief imprisonments in 2003 and 2004 of hundreds of opposition activists arrested by the police for their participation in unsanctioned anti-government demonstrations. Few of them reportedly had access to lawyers and a public trial.
The authorities say the situation will improve after the recent passage of amendments to Armenia’s constitution that are aimed at making local courts less dependent on the government. Under Armenian law virtually judges are appointed and can be dismissed by the president of the republic. The amended constitution is supposed to restrict this controversial prerogative by empowering serving judges to elect most members of the Council of Justice, a body that has the exclusive authority to make judicial nominations.
But many lawyers do not expect positive change in the near future. “There is talk of reforms and the country moving toward the rule of law,” one of them, Lusine Sahakian, complained. “But I think the opposite is the case. Things are just getting worse and worse.”
“There are numerous cases of trumped-up charges brought against innocent people,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “A judge may deliberately jail an innocent person and then go home, meet friends and raise toasts to the humankind without feeling any remorse. This is what I can’t understand.”