President Serzh Sarkisian has sacked a district court judge in Yerevan, a move which Armenia’s national bar association considers a serious bloc to judicial independence.
The judge, Samvel Mnatsakanian, was relieved of his duties this week upon the recommendation of the Justice Council, a state body overseeing Armenian courts.
The council headed by Arman Mkrtumian, chairman of the Court of Cassation, sent a corresponding petition to Sarkisian late last month. The court has refused to publicize the document or comment on the drastic measure since then.
Nor has the presidential administration given any reasons for Sarkisian’s decree. Mnatsakanian has also declined a comment.
The Armenian Chamber of Advocates believes that the judge was fired because of granting bail to a criminal suspect contrary to prosecutors’ wishes. Its chairman, Ruben Sahakian, and dozens of other lawyers staged an unprecedented demonstration outside the Court of Cassation last week to protest against Mnatsakanian’s impending sacking. Sahakian denounced the Justice Council’s decision as unfounded.
Other senior members of the chamber claim that Mnatsakanian lost his job because he failed to ask for and receive Mkrtumian’s go-ahead. They say the Court of Cassation chief always wants to have the final say in the rare cases where judges plan to make decisions going against prosecutors’ wishes.
One of those lawyers, Hayk Alumian, on Thursday criticized Sarkisian for accepting the Justice Council’s “arbitrary” petition. He also deplored the fact that the presidential administration did not substantiate the move.
Armenian courts have long been notorious for their lack of independence, rarely acquitting suspects and making other decisions resented by the government and law-enforcement bodies. Many local lawyers remain highly skeptical about repeated government pledges to boost judicial independence.