One of Armenia’s most powerful judges who has long been accused by lawyers of restricting judicial independence in the country stepped down on Tuesday.
Arman Mkrtumian has headed the Court of Cassation, the highest body of criminal and civil justice, for the last ten years. He joined the court as a senior judge in 1998.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Mkrtumian, 57, cited the need to let “experienced young people” play a greater role in Armenia’s judicial system. He made no mention of the recent change of government that followed weeks of nationwide mass protests led by Nikol Pashinian.
Shortly after being elected as the country’s prime minister on May 8, Pashinian said that Armenian courts will no longer be acting on government orders. He urged judges to strictly adhere to laws and ignore possible pressure from state institutions or non-state actors.
Despite having undergone frequent structural changes over the past two decades, the domestic judiciary is still regarded by many Armenians as corrupt and not independent.
The Court of Cassation and Mkrtumian in particular have long been the main source of complaints from Armenian trial attorneys. The latter have accused Mkrtumian of severely limiting the independence of lower courts.
In particular, Mkrtumian came under fire in 2011 after engineering the controversial sacking of a Yerevan judge who granted bail to a criminal suspect contrary to prosecutors’ wishes.
The judge, Samvel Mnatsakanian, was dismissed by then President Serzh Sarkisian upon the recommendation of the Justice Council, a state body overseeing Armenian courts. The council was headed by Mkrtumian at the time.
Mnatsakanian claimed after his sacking that many Armenian judges are primarily concerned with not upsetting the Court of Cassation, rather than enforcing laws.
In June 2013, about 200 Armenian lawyers went on a two-day strike to protest against what they called arbitrary decisions routinely made by the high court. They specifically denounced the court’s refusal to consider the vast majority of appeals lodged by them in criminal or civil cases.
Later in 2013, the then human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, released an extensive report that accused judges of routinely taking bribes in return for corresponding rulings.
The report, based on confidential interviews with lawyers, judges and prosecutors, singled out the Court of Cassation. It alleged that the bribes paid to the court’s judges typically range from $10,000 to $50,000 per case.
Both the court and the Judicial Council denied the allegations.