A court in Yerevan confirmed on Tuesday that it has suspended Robert Kocharian’s trial because of what it called a possible contradiction between the Armenian constitution and coup charges brought against the former president.
In a decision posted on an official website, the judge presiding over the trial, Davit Grigorian, cited a “suspicion of discrepancy” between three articles of the constitution and prosecutors’ claims that Kocharian illegally seized power in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election. He said he has therefore asked the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on that suspicion.
What is more, Grigorian suggested that the constitution gives Kocharian immunity from prosecution in connection with the post-election violence of March 1-2, 2008, which left eight opposition protesters and two policemen dead.
The judge formally made the decision on Monday one week after the start of Kocharian’s trial and two days after ordering the ex-president’s release from jail pending a court verdict in the high-profile case.
The order angered many political allies and supporters of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who hold Kocharian responsible for the 2008 bloodshed. At Pashinian’s urging, they blocked the entrances to court buildings across the country on Monday.
The protests ended shortly after Pashinian held an emergency meeting with senior state officials to announce a “surgical intervention” in the Armenian judiciary which he said remains closely linked to the country’s “corrupt” former leaders. In particular, the premier called for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges and said many of them should quit even before the start of such a process.
Judge Grigorian’s decision to refer the case to the Constitutional Court was condemned by lawyers representing relatives of the protesters killed in March 2008. They complained that he did not hear their arguments before deciding to suspend the trial.
One of the lawyers, Vahe Grigorian (no relation to the judge), said the Constitutional Court cannot take up the case because he and his colleague Seda Safarian are legally unable to appeal against the judge’s decision.
Safarian denied any contradiction between the constitutional provisions and an article of the Criminal Code used against Kocharian as well as three other indicted former officials. She also dismissed the district court judge’s claim about Kocharian’s immunity from prosecution.
Article 140 of the constitution says: “During the term of his or her powers and thereafter, the President of the Republic may not be prosecuted and subjected to liability for actions deriving from his or her status.”
Law-enforcement authorities have said that this clause does not apply to Kocharian because his actions in February-March 2008 were illegal. Safarian likewise asserted that they “didn’t stem from his status.”
The judge’s argument is that Kocharian acted as president of the republic, not as a private individual, even assuming that his post-election crackdown on the opposition was unlawful.
Kocharian’s lawyers have made the same point. One of them, Hovannes Khudoyan, welcomed Judge Grigorian’s controversial decision.
Under Armenian law, the Constitutional Court has one month to decide whether to hold hearings and rule on the judge’s appeal.
Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General did not react to the development as of Tuesday evening. A spokesperson for the law-enforcement agency told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that it has not yet received a copy of the decision.
The prosecutors pledged over the weekend to appeal against Kocharian’s release from custody.