By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian government is seeking to push through parliament a bill that would give President Robert Kocharian more judicial powers and seriously restrict local courts’ exclusive right to release convicts on parole.
Officials at the Justice Ministry said on Tuesday that the proposed legislation is aimed at reducing widespread corrupt practices involved in the process. But some independent lawyers were highly skeptical about its positive impact on administration of justice in Armenia.
The existing Armenian law stipulates that convicts become eligible for parole after serving at least one third of their prison sentences. The courts of first instance can set them free if they receive positive letters of recommendation from prison administrations. Early releases from jail are therefore not uncommon in the country.
Under the government bill already sent to the National Assembly, the courts would not be allowed to grant parole without the consent of a special commission to be formed by the president of the republic. According to Nikolay Arustamian, head of a Justice Ministry that has drafted this and several other amendments to Armenia’s judicial legislation, the new procedure would make it much harder for corrupt judges and prison chiefs to release convicted criminals in return for kickbacks.
“I think that with the creation of such body we will reduce corruption risks,” Arustamian told RFE/RL. “I also think that the likelihood of arriving at correct conclusions [in the consideration of parole petitions] will be greater.”
But Robert Grigorian, a prominent trial attorney, disagreed. “Corruption will simply move from one place to another,” he said. “One should tackle corruption not by creating new bodies or redistributing powers but by addressing its root causes. Only the supremacy of law can ensure an effective fight against corruption and crime in general.”
Grigorian and many other legal experts believe that a key reason for the weakness of the rule of law in Armenia is the fact that the local courts rarely acquit criminal suspects or overturn controversial decisions taken by the government. The Armenian authorities, backed by the Council of Europe, say judicial independence will grow considerably as a result of the recently enacted amendments to Armenia’s constitution.
The amendments placed significant curbs on the president’s hitherto unrestricted authority to appoint and dismiss virtually all judges. The government bill, if is passed by the Kocharian-controlled parliament, will somewhat offset those curbs.