By Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian authorities have embarked on yet another structural reform of the country’s judicial system that will roll back changes enacted by them just over a year ago.
Their amendments to Armenia’s Judicial Code that took effect in January 2008 split the courts of first instance into tribunals specializing in criminal and civil cases as well as those of “general competence.” The changes initiated by the Justice Ministry in 2007 were supposed to make the judiciary more efficient and increase chances of fair court verdicts.
The reform has clearly failed to live up to government expectations. The government pushed through the National Assembly last week a bill that essentially restores the structure of lower courts. The bill is to come into force on March 1, meaning that the courts of first instance have to be re-established by that time.
“Instead of specialized courts, we are going to have specialized judges operating within the courts of first instance,” Alina Yengoyan, a spokeswoman for Armenia’s Court of Cassation, told RFE/RL on Wednesday.
Yengoyan said judges of the disbanded or restructured courts have already been offered to choose the type of court cases they would like to deal with in their new capacity. She could not say if all of them will be appointed to the courts of first instance by the end of this month.
The Armenian judiciary has regularly undergone structural changes since the mid-1990s. But there are few indications that those have increased its independence and integrity, with local courts still rarely making decisions going against the wishes of the government and law-enforcement bodies.
Visiting the Court of Cassation last July, President Serzh Sarkisian acknowledged a lingering lack of public trust in Armenia’s judicial system and said he will do “everything” to make local courts more independent. The pledge came amid trials of dozens of opposition members arrested following the February 2008 presidential election on controversial charges. The courts have sided with prosecutors in virtually all of those cases.