A judge who was controversially sacked this month launched a scathing attack on Armenia’s judicial system on Friday, saying that it is far from being independent, objective and fair.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Samvel Mnatsakanian claimed that the local judiciary cannot be considered a separate branch of government because many judges are primarily concerned with not upsetting high-level state authorities, rather than enforcing laws.
“That is the main impediment to the judicial system’s development into a separate branch of government,” he said. “You can’t have a judicial branch if judicial principles that are supposed to guide the judge -- namely, law and his internal conviction -- have no connection whatsoever with the judiciary.”
Mnatsakanian took the bench in 1988 and worked at a district court in Yerevan until being relieved of his duties by President Serzh Sarkisian on July 11. Sarkisian made the decision upon the recommendation of the Justice Council, a state body overseeing Armenian courts.
The council is headed by Arman Mkrtumian, chairman of the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest body of criminal and civil justice. It has so far been reluctant to elaborate on the recommendation sent to the president.
Mnatsakanian is believed to have been fired because of granting bail to a criminal suspect contrary to prosecutors’ wishes. The Armenian Chamber of Advocates (ACA) says that he made that decision without consulting with Mkrtumian and thus infuriated the latter.
The chairman of the national bar association, Ruben Sahakian, and dozens of other lawyers staged an unprecedented demonstration outside the Court of Cassation early this month to protest against Mnatsakanian’s impending sacking.
Mnatsakanian likewise described the Justice Council’s action against him as baseless. He said Mkrtumian personally initiated his ouster to warn other judges against making major decisions without his consent.
Armenian courts have long been notorious for their lack of independence, rarely handing down other rulings opposed by the government and law-enforcement bodies. Hence, widespread skepticism about repeated government pledges to reform the judiciary.
In what many independent lawyers regard as a serious blow to judicial independence, the Justice Council backed in October 2007 the sacking of another Yerevan judge who was behind one of the most sensational acquittals in Armenia’s history.
The judge, Pargev Ohanian, was fired by then President Robert Kocharian three months after clearing the owner and deputy director of a coffee packaging company of controversial fraud charges. Both men walked free in the courtroom.
Armenia’s Court of Appeals overturned their acquittal and sentenced them six and two years in prison in November 2007. The Court of Cassation subsequently upheld the ruling.
The businessmen, Gagik Hakobian and Aram Ghazarian, were arrested in 2005 after publicly accusing senior Armenian customs officials of corruption. One of those officials, Gagik Khachatrian, currently heads the State Revenue Committee that manages the national tax and customs services.