By Anna Saghabalian
Acquittal of individuals charged with crimes remains extremely rare in Armenia, with judges siding with prosecutors in more than 99 percent of cases, according to court statistics released on Monday.
The figures, made public by the head of the country’s highest body of criminal justice, show that Armenian courts of first instance handed down some 1,500 verdicts on criminal cases in the first half of this year and only four of them cleared criminal suspects of any wrongdoing.
Hovannes Manukian, chairman of the Court of Cassation, admitted that the extremely low rate of acquittals calls into question the independence and fairness of Armenia’s judcial system. “The acquittal rate in Russia is three percent. This is a quite high figure,” he argued, adding that the figure is even higher in established Western democracies.
Manukian insisted at the same time that the abundance of guilty verdicts does not testify to Armenian courts’ chronic subservience to law-enforcement bodies and the government. “No officials in Armenia are as well protected as judges,” he told a news conference. “If a judge is courageous, has some principles, a certain system of values, it is extremely difficult to influence or pressure them. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached a point where all of our judges are capable of displaying an audacious and principled position.”
Many in Armenia would argue, however, that there are very few judges who are ready to defy prosecutors and deliver important verdicts that go against the government’s wishes. Corruption among local judges is also believed to be a serious problem. Their authority was further undermined in recent years during mass imprisonment of opposition supporters and activists under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses strongly criticized by local and international human rights organizations. Few of the hundreds of people across the country sentenced to up to 15 days in prison for their participation in unsactioned opposition rallies had access to lawyers and a public hearing.
In an annual report issued in April 2005, Armenia’s Office of the State Human Rights Defender said the courts’ bias in favor of state prosecutors is “constantly evident.” And in a detailed study conducted in 2004, the American Bar Association found no “fundamental progress” in the strengthening of judicial independence in the country since the Soviet collapse. The ABA’s Judicial Reform Index concluded that “legal culture in Armenia … is still dominated by Soviet-era thinking that puts the procuracy at the top of the legal system, followed by judges and lastly defense advocates.”
(Photolur photo: Hovannes Manukian.)