By Hovannes Shoghikian
Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman, complained on Wednesday about a continuing lack of judicial independence in Armenia, saying that local courts were the main source of citizen complaints received by his office last year.
Presenting his first annual report, Harutiunian said almost 13 percent of 1,247 complaints filed with the Office of the Human Rights Defender had to do with decisions made by various-level courts.
“The number of complaints filed against courts shows that there is a lot of distrust in the judicial system, which is supposed to be the main institution of human rights protection,” he said. “The courts must become as independent as possible.”
The 223-page report draws the same conclusion: “Although a defendant’s disaffection with a guilty verdict can be deemed natural, the large number of such complaints gives us reason to conclude that the population’s trust in the courts is far from satisfactory.”
Armenian courts rarely acquit criminal suspects and hand down other rulings going against the wishes of law-enforcement and government bodies. Many lawyers say this fact testifies to their lack of independence. Some blame it on Armenia’s post-Soviet constitution that gives the president of the republic the right to appoint and dismiss virtually all judges. That authority was somewhat restricted by constitutional amendments enacted in November 2005.
Harutiunian, himself a constitutional law expert, specifically faulted the courts for rejecting just about every lawsuit against controversial confiscations of land and house demolitions ordered by the Yerevan municipality in recent years. “The courts rule that the mayor can allow construction anywhere he wants,” he said.
Yerevan courts continued to rule against owners of houses demolished by municipal authorities as part of redevelopment projects implemented in the city center even after Armenia’s Constitutional Court declared the process unconstitutional last year.
Incidentally, the municipality was the second largest source of citizen appeals to Harutiunian’s office in 2006, followed by the Armenian police and the Ministry of Justice. Harutiunian said he will put the Yerevan mayor’s office under closer scrutiny this year because of “blatant” violations of the law alleged by many city residents.