By Karine Kalantarian
Armenian courts lack independence and are widely distrusted by the population despite undergoing a sweeping structural reform over the past decade, a high-ranking judge admitted on Friday.
“The judicial system is far from being independent,” said Hovannes Manukian, chairman of the Court of Cassation. “I would hide the truth if I said that Armenia has a fully independent and efficient judicial system.”
“If we had such a system I would probably be idle in my capacity as chairman of the Court of Cassation … and I would probably look for a more interesting area of activity,” he told journalists.
Armenian courts rarely acquit criminal suspects and hand down other rulings going against the wishes of law-enforcement and government bodies. This was the main highlight of an annual report issued recently by Armenia’s state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian. The report said the courts were main sources of citizen complaints received by Harutiunian’s office last year.
This fact was construed by the ombudsman as an indication of a widespread popular distrust in the Armenian judiciary. He 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.
In a statement last week, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest body of criminal and civil justice, dismissed the criticism as unjustified last week. It argued that it is natural for individuals who have been convicted of crimes or lost lawsuits to allege injustice.
Manukian appeared more self-critical on Friday, however. “On the whole, public attitudes towards the judiciary are not quite positive,” he said. Manukian claimed that the root cause of the problem is the “low wages” of the Armenia judges which he believes must be increased tenfold to in order for the judiciary to become more independent.
Judges are already the highest-paid state officials in Armenia, earning an average of 250,000 drams ($680) a month, or about four times more than the nationwide average salary. Many of them are believed to be wealthy individuals owning businesses. Critics consider that a result of their corruption.
Lawyers have long blamed the lack of judicial independence 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 restricted by constitutional amendments enacted in November 2005.
There are signs that the amendments are beginning to have an impact. Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian publicly complained in February that Armenian courts delivered “evidently lenient” rulings in the course of last year, warning that the law-enforcement agency is “not going to put up with that.” The warning prompted an unusually sharp response from the Armenian Union of Judges which said prosecutors should do a better job of substantiating criminal accusations, instead of issuing “pointless threats.”
Jahangirian’s remarks were widely attributed to a surprise decision by the Court of Cassation last December to effectively acquit three army soldiers sentenced to life imprisonment on dubious murder charges. It was the first known case of an Armenian court rebuffing military prosecutors.