By Astghik Bedevian
The judge who sensationally acquitted two businessmen controversially imprisoned by the Armenian authorities is facing disciplinary action and may even be fired by a body overseeing Armenia’s courts.
The presidentially appointed Council of Justice will meet on September 26 to discuss violations of Armenian law allegedly committed by Pargev Ohanian, a judge in a Yerevan court of first instance. The Judicial Department, another, government-controlled body monitoring the work of Armenian judges, claims that Ohanian broke the law in his rulings on nearly two dozen criminal and civil cases.
In an interview with RFE/RL on Tuesday, Ohanian did not deny that he believes the real reason for the extraordinary action is his July 16 verdict that cleared Gagik Hakobian, the owner of the Royal Armenia coffee packaging company, and its executive director, Aram Ghazarian, of controversial fraud charges.
The ruling was a rare example of an Armenian court defying law-enforcement bodies and acquitting criminal suspects. Also, it was the first time that the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, lost a major court case.
Hakobian and Ghazarian had been arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing the Armenian customs of corruption. They went on trial late last year on what they see as trumped-up charges of smuggling and tax fraud. The two men claim that the case was brought in retaliation for Royal Armenia’s refusal to engage in a fraud scam with senior customs officials and its decision to publicly expose widespread corruption within the customs.
Prosecutors representing the NSS strongly disagreed with Ohanian’s ruling, asking Armenia’s Court of Appeals to overturn it and sentence the businessmen to 12 and 11 years in prison. The court opened hearings on the appeal last month.
“Unfortunately, I can’t exclude that the process was brought as a result of that verdict,” said Ohanian.
Asked whether he faced pressure or retribution from government officials after the acquittal, the embattled judge replied, “I wouldn’t like to talk about that. Maybe I would later on.”
Just days after Hakobian and Ghazarian walked free in the courtroom, President Robert Kocharian held a meeting with Armenia’s senior judges which ostensibly focused on the ongoing reform of the Armenian judiciary. Newspaper reports said Kocharian expressed his displeasure with their acquittal and warned the judges, all of them appointed by him, against defying law-enforcement authorities in the future.
Under Armenia’s constitution, the Council of Justice’s disciplinary actions can range from a verbal reprimand to a request to the president of the republic to relieve a judge of their duties. The Armenian Court of Cassation, whose Chairman Hovannes Manukian presides over Council of Justice meetings, on Tuesday refused to comment on the matter.
Ohanian said he is now prepared for any decision by the body and does not regret his July ruling that took many by surprise. “My decision was based on law and my conscience,” he said.
“The [Royal Armenia] case forced me to take a different look at myself, my work, my conscience,” added the embattled judge. “I had to make a choice. Either to hand down an unfair verdict and subject those people to strict punishment, or to do justice. I preferred justice.”