By Anna Saghabalian
Justice Minister David Harutiunian outlined on Tuesday an impending reform of Armenia’s judicial and law-enforcement systems which he said is aimed at making them more independent and less corrupt.
Harutiunian presented a package of relevant legislative amendments that have been drafted by an ad hoc working group headed by him. The group was tasked by the government with proposing changes stemming from the recent reform of the Armenian constitution.
The most controversial and significant of its proposals would strip Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General of its sweeping investigative powers and pass them on to the Police Service and the National Security Service. According to reports in the Armenian press, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and other top prosecutors have fiercely resisted the proposed change, fearing that their agency would become far less powerful as a result.
The disagreement reportedly prompted President Robert Kocharian to call a special meeting on the issue of top Justice Ministry officials and prosecutors last May. Kocharian appears to have eventually sided with Harutiunian. The latter insisted that only the Armenian police and the former KGB will have the power to conduct pre-trial criminal investigations.
Harutiunian also unveiled a new draft Judicial Code that envisages structural changes in the Armenian judiciary. The code calls in particular for the introduction of new “courts of magistrates” that will deal only with civil lawsuits and minor criminal offences. The other Armenian courts of first instance will deal with more serious crimes such as murders and armed robberies.
The proposed legislation would also curtail the powers of the Armenian Court of Appeals. It would be able to accept appeals only in the event of “judicial mistakes” committed by lower courts or “new circumstances” emerging after original litigations.
According to Harutiunian, these changes will render Armenia’s courts more independent and objective. “This is essential for the country’s continued development,” he told reporters. “Without solving this issue we won’t have the kind of development which we deserve.”
The Armenian judiciary had already undergone a sweeping structural reform more than a decade ago but hardly became more independent as a result. Local courts rarely acquit criminal suspects, investigate widespread torture allegations and hand down rulings going against the government’s wishes. Corruption among Armenian judges is also a serious problem.
Harutiunian, who has plaid a key role in the selection and appointment of judges, himself has been accused of exercising considerable influence on their decisions. He admitted on Tuesday that many judges “very often abuse their powers.” “We are out to conclude that the situation is not good and that effective measures are need to rectify this situation,” he said.
Some of the recently enacted amendments to the Armenian constitution are supposed to boost judicial independence by seriously curbing President Robert Kocharian’s hitherto unrestricted powers to appoint and sack judges. But independent lawyers say it will take years before the amendments can make a difference.