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Armenia still has no independent judiciary despite numerous legislative changes enacted by its successive governments over the past two decades, a member of the country’s Constitutional Court said on Thursday.

“There is a lack of justice in Armenia. The courts, including the Constitutional Court, are not independent,” Felix Tokhian told a news conference held on the 17th anniversary of a disputed referendum that approved the existing Armenian constitution.

In unusually blunt remarks, Tokhian said the problem not only creates a fertile ground for human rights abuses but also hampers economic development. “The absence of an independent judicial system greatly affects the pace of economic growth in the country,” he said, arguing that local and foreign investors cannot count on Armenian courts in protecting their businesses.

The courts have long been notorious for rarely handing down rulings opposed by the government and law-enforcement bodies. Only about 2 percent of individuals charged with various crimes were acquitted by them last year.

Armenia -- Member of Constitutional Court Felix Tokhyan at a press conference, Yerevan, 05Jul2012

Armenia -- Member of Constitutional Court Felix Tokhyan at a press conference, Yerevan, 05Jul2012

Tokhian complained that Armenian judges challenging the authorities run the risk of arbitrary dismissal. “If someone tells you something bad, you immediately go to court,” he said. “But if a judge is fired he can’t come out and say why. A judge can’t appeal [his sacking.] And you wonder why they are not independent.”

A Yerevan district court judge, Samvel Mnatsakanian, made a similar point last year after he was controversially dismissed by President Serzh Sarkisian upon the recommendation of the Justice Council, a state body overseeing the judiciary. In a July 2011 interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Mnatsakanian said many of his colleagues are primarily concerned with not upsetting high-level state authorities, rather than enforcing laws.

The judicial system has undergone frequent and substantial structural changes since the 1995 constitutional referendum. Some of the Western-backed constitutional amendments enacted by the Armenian authorities in 2005 were supposed to make judges less susceptible to government pressure.

Tokhian said the Armenian constitution should be amended again in a way that would ensure a proper “balance” among all branches of government. “There is a balance now but it is tilted in one direction: the political majority,” he said. The judge suggested that the country’s main political forces represented in the new National Assembly could reach consensus on fresh constitutional reform.

President Sarkisian has repeatedly pledged to boost judicial independence since taking office in 2008. He approved a five-year government plan of judicial reforms last week.
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