The Armenian parliament will elect on Wednesday five of the ten members of a new and powerful body tasked with overseeing Armenia’s courts.
The remaining members of the Supreme Judicial Council will be chosen by the country’s judges who took the bench at least ten years ago.
The council is being set up in accordance with sweeping constitutional changes enacted in 2015. According to one of those amendments, its main mission is to “guarantee the independence of the courts and the judges.”
The council will nominate virtually all new judges that will be appointed by the Armenian president and the National Assembly. It is also empowered to take disciplinary action against judges or have them terminated altogether.
The parliament discussed on Tuesday the five members of the council proposed by the ruling Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Lawmakers will vote for or against them in secret ballot.
The candidates, among them Gagik Harutiunian, the outgoing chairman of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, will have to be backed by at least 63 members of the 105-seat parliament in order to get elected to the judicial body. The HHK and Dashnaktsutyun control 65 parliament seats.
The two other political groups represented in the legislature chose not to nominate any candidates. Instead, deputies representing the opposition Yelk bloc put tough questions to the five candidates on the parliament floor. In particular, Harutiunian was asked about the existence of political prisoners and opposition allegations of electoral fraud that have always been dismissed by the Constitutional Court.
“I won’t confirm or deny [the existence of political prisoners] for the following reason: I have not looked into any criminal case of this kind,” said Harutiunian.
Yelk’s parliamentary leader, Nikol Pashinian, hit out at the long-serving Constitutional Court chief after the question-and-answer session. “The guy was vice-president, prime minister and Constitutional Court chairman … but doesn’t know if there have been political prisoners in Armenia,” he said. “This is his relationship to the truth.”
Pashinian also attacked another candidate, former Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian. He said that Armenian jails were “full of political prisoners” during Danielian’s tenure.
HHK parliamentarians rejected the criticism. “Nobody can call into question their [professional] qualities that are needed for their tenure at the Supreme Judicial Council,” one of them, former Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian, said during the debate.
Incidentally, another candidate nominated by the ruling party, Liparit Melikjanian, ran for the parliament on the Yelk ticket as recently as one year ago. He accused the Armenian authorities of pursuing “anti-national policies” during the election campaign.
“I may sympathize with the Yelk bloc in terms of political views but I think that my political career is over now,” Melikjanian said on Tuesday.
Armenian courts have long been notorious for their lack of independence from the executive branch. They are still mistrusted by many citizens despite having undergone frequent structural changes in the last two decades. Corruption among judges is thought to be another serious problem.