Armenia’s highest court on Tuesday declared unconstitutional a legal provision allowing law-enforcement bodies to wiretap telephone conversations and monitor other private correspondence without court permissions in some cases.
The Armenian constitution guarantees the complete privacy of citizens’ personal communication, including phone calls and regular and electronic mail. It says security agencies can have access to private correspondence of criminal suspects only if they get clearance from courts.
An article of Armenia’s Criminal Code of Procedural Justice enacted after a constitutional reform in 2005 says that such permissions are not necessary if one of the parties to a phone conversation or other forms of personal communication allows law-enforcement bodies to breach their privacy.
Earlier this year, Armenia’s state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, asked the Constitutional Court to declare this clause null and void, saying that its runs counter to the constitution.
The court accepted Harutiunian’s arguments in a ruling announced on Tuesday. It obligated the National Assembly to amend the code accordingly.
Many Armenian opposition politicians and journalists have long suspected the authorities and the National Security Service (NSS) of illegally eavesdropping on their phone calls. The Constitutional Court ruling will hardly dispel their suspicions. Skeptics will point out that Armenian courts rarely make decisions going against the wishes of the government and its security apparatus.
The NSS is known to have wiretapped the phones of at least one opposition leader, former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, during and after a disputed presidential election held on February 19, 2008.
Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition presidential candidate, publicized in September 2008 a copy of the written permission given to the NSS by a Yerevan court on election day.
The court ruled that the former Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB has “sufficient grounds” to suspect that Arzumanian is intent on “destabilizing” the political situation in order to “effect government change by unconstitutional means.” The oppositionist was arrested in March 2008 and spent more than a year in prison.
Ter-Petrosian, whose election campaign was managed by Arzumanian, condemned the court decision as illegal. “On February 19, it was still not known who will win [the election,]” he argued. “Why would Aleksandr Arzumanian attempt to change the government by unconstitutional means on that day?”