By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian parliament began debating on Friday a government proposal to set up a new security agency that would be tasked with investigating instances of government corruption and other abuses committed by state officials.
Presenting a relevant draft law to the National Assembly, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian said the proposed Special Investigative Service (SIS) would exclusively deal with crimes that have a “great public resonance and “relate to the status of state officials.” He said it would also be supposed to combat electoral fraud.
Under the government bill, the head of the SIS would be nominated by Armenia’s prosecutor-general and appointed by the president of the republic. This provision prompted strong objections from opposition and even some pro-government deputies. Those included David Harutiunian, Danielian’s predecessor who now chairs the parliament committee on legal affairs.
“In my opinion, the nomination by the prosecutor-general is unacceptable,” Harutiunian said during the debates. He said the SIS chief should be nominated by the Armenian prime minister instead.
Harutiunian also rejected as unconstitutional some of his opposition colleagues’ demands that the head of the new security service be chosen by the parliament.
The parliamentary faction of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition, also voiced misgivings about the bill, requesting a separate meeting with Danielian. Its leader, Hrayr Karapetian, said Dashnaktsutyun lawmakers have “many question” regarding the bill.
Opposition lawmakers, for their part, were highly skeptical about Danielian’s assurances that the SIS would be independent of all branches of government and therefore better placed to tackle government abuses than the existing law-enforcement bodies. “Can you really imagine this supposedly independent security service equally dealing with all cases and investigating crimes originating in the prosecutor’s office or the presidential administration?” Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun Party, asked the minister.
Other opposition deputies expressed concern about the possibility of a further restriction of civil liberties enjoyed by Armenians. Zaruhi Postanjian, another Zharangutyun parliament, pointed to the passage last month of a highly controversial government bill that allows law-enforcement authorities to wire-tap phone conversations without a court authorization. He also accused the authorities of planning to create “networks of secret agents” for all law-enforcement and tax agencies.
“Where will this path take us?” said Postanjian. “Do we want to make our people even more scared and reduce Armenia’s population to a minimum?”
The government wants the proposed law on the SIS to take effect as early as on December 1, the day when Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General will formally lose its authority to conduct pre-trial criminal investigation. Danielian insisted that the bill is not aimed at mitigating the serious reduction in the law-enforcement agency’s powers.