By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruben Meloyan
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian insisted on Monday that a judge in Yerevan is risking dismissal not because of his unprecedented decision to acquit two businessmen controversially imprisoned by the Armenian authorities.
A group of trial attorneys, meanwhile, voiced support for Pargev Ohanian, a judge in the court of first instance of the city’s Kentron and Nork Marash districts, saying that his ouster would deal a heavy blow to judicial independence in Armenia.
The presidentially appointed Council of Justice will meet on Wednesday to consider punitive measures against Ohanian which is sought by the Judicial Department, another government-controlled body monitoring the work of Armenian courts. The department claims that Ohanian broke the law in his rulings on nearly two dozen criminal and civil cases.
In an interview with RFE/RL last week, the judge implied that he is paying the price of his July 16 verdict that cleared Gagik Hakobian, the owner of the Royal Armenia coffee packaging company, and one of its top executives, Aram Ghazarian, of controversial fraud charges. The two men had been arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing senior Armenian customs officials of corruption.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Danielian denied any connection between the disciplinary action and what was a rare court ruling going against the wishes of law-enforcement authorities and the National Security Service (NSS) in particular. “This is a mere coincidence,” he said. “Whether or not the [July] ruling is unfounded will be determined by further judicial proceedings [at the Court of Appeals.] That ruling can be overturned.”
Danielian claimed that Ohanian’s activities came under scrutiny months before the sensational acquittal condemned by prosecutors. “Nobody could predict then what the judge will rule [on the Royal Armenia case,]” he said.
But several prominent lawyers strongly disagreed with this, saying that the Armenian authorities fear that Ohanian’s verdict may have set a dangerous precedent for other judges who normally endorse accusations leveled by prosecutors.
“The majority of Armenian judges, including those with a 30-year work experience, have never passed single not-guilty verdict,” said one of them, Hayk Alumian. “In order to present rosy reports to European structures, the authorities probably allowed courts to hand down a few not-guilty verdicts a year. But as this case shows, even those few acquittals are under strict control.”
“The question is not Pargev Ohanian’s future on the bench,” said another attorney, Ara Ghazarian. “The question is whether or not there is justice in the Republic of Armenia.”
The freed businessmen, who may still be sent back to prison by the Court of Appeals, insist that the fraud case against them was brought by the NSS in retaliation for their refusal to engage in a fraud scam with senior customs officials and its decision to publicly expose widespread corruption within the Armenian customs. They say the authorities feared that their example could encourage other local entrepreneurs to challenge the reputedly corrupt government agency.
President Robert Kocharian reportedly expressed his displeasure with the Royal Armenia men’s acquittal at a meeting with senior judges held just days after Ohanian’s judgment. Under the Armenian constitution, the president of the republic appoints and can fire virtually all judges at the recommendation of the Justice Council.
While denying any pressure on Ohanian, Danielian chided the defiant judge for implicitly alleging government retribution. “Ohanian should defend himself not in the media but at the Council of Justice,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Gevorg Danielian.)