By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
President Serzh Sarkisian acknowledged on Thursday a lack of public trust in Armenia’s judicial system and said he will do “everything” to make local courts more independent of the government. He at the same time cautioned that judicial independence in the country must not be “absolute.”
“I will do everything to ensure that courts and judges acquire real independence,” he said, addressing members of the Court of Cassation. “Financial independence, independence from influential persons, independence from officials. At the same time I will strictly see to it that that independence is not used for malicious purposes, that courts and judges do not think that they are absolutely independent, including from law.”
Citing passages from the Bible, Sarkisian also urged Armenian judges not to take bribes in return for handing down unfair and illegal rulings.
Sarkisian spoke during an official ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the country’s highest body of criminal and civil justice. It was set up in 1998 part of a sweeping structural reform of the Armenian judiciary that was meant to make it more independent of the executive branch. The process appears to have ended last year with the creation of new courts specializing in criminal, administrative and civil cases. In addition, Armenia enacted in late 2005 constitutional amendments that somewhat restricted the president’s authority to dismiss various-level judges.
Nonetheless, Armenian courts continue to rarely make decisions going against the wishes of the government and law-enforcement bodies in what is widely regarded as proof of their subordination to the executive. According to many local lawyers, the lack of their independence has been highlighted by the ongoing trials of dozens of opposition members arrested following last February’s disputed presidential election. Local courts have sided with prosecutors in virtually all of the cases.
“Today the Armenian public’s principal discontent is with injustice and its main demand is justice,” said Sarkisian. “That demand must be primarily satisfied in the courts.” The latter have a “decisive role” to play in creating “an atmosphere of trust” in Armenia, he said.
Hovannes Manukian, chairman of Armenia’s Court of Cassation, also admitted that many Armenians do not trust their courts. “Even if half of the public doesn’t trust courts, there is a problem,” he told RFE/RL.
Manukian revealed that the Court of Cassation has proposed to Sarkisian a set of measures which it believes would boost judicial independence. “It’s an unpopular program because one of its main elements is to raise judges’ salaries,” he said, adding that they should at least be doubled.
“Along with a very significant pay rise, we propose to put in place a very strict oversight of judges in terms of corruption risks,” added Manukian. “That would allow us to change the situation significantly. It would automatically lead to changes in other state bodies.”
Armenian judges are already the highest paid state officials along with the president of the republic and government ministers. Some of them are reportedly wealthy individuals with business interests.
(Presidential press service photo)