One of Armenia’s highest courts has agreed to discuss with the national bar association what the state human rights ombudsman and many lawyers see as widespread corruption in the judiciary, it emerged on Tuesday.
Ara Zohrabian, the chairman of the Armenian Chamber of Advocates (ACA), revealed that the Court of Cassation and the ACA have formed a joint “working group” to look into ways of preventing corrupt practices among judges. The group has already held its first meeting, he said.
The significant development is clearly connected with a damning report that was released by Ombudsman Karen Andreasian late last year. It accused judges of routinely taking bribes to hand down corresponding rulings. Citing interviews with unnamed judges, prosecutors and lawyers, the report claimed that the kickbacks typically range from $500 to $50,000 per case.
Andreasian also alleged that Armenian courts often make unfair and arbitrary decisions. The ombudsman singled out the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest body of criminal and civil justice, for criticism.
The Armenian Union of Judges condemned the corruption allegations as baseless, warning of a “serious risk of the destabilization of state and public order.” The Armenian government also criticized Andreasian.
Arsen Babayan, a spokesman for the government’s Judicial Department monitoring courts, admitted that the ombudsman’s report was at least one of the factors behind the Court of Cassation’s stated readiness to address the problem. “Naturally, the report has had some influence in the sense that there is a problem of misunderstanding,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“That there are problems, including corrupt practices, in the judicial system has always been acknowledged by judicial authorities,” he said.
According to Zohrabian, the newly formed working group is specifically looking into ways of restricting or abolishing the high court’s discretionary power not to rule on appeals against lower-court verdicts. The ACA head said such curbs would significantly reduce “serious corruption risks” in the system.
Armenian lawyers have for years slammed the Court of Cassation and its chairman, Arman Mkrtumian, in particular for throwing out the vast majority of their appeals without any explanation. Hundreds of them went on a two-day strike last June to protest against that.
“These protests and the ombudsman’s report have created a situation in which the Court of Cassation has expressed readiness to give up its discretionary powers,” Zohrabian told reporters.