Senior representatives of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step alliance expressed concern on Friday over a senior judge’s appointment to a state body overseeing Armenia’s courts.
The body called the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) has wide-ranging constitutional powers, including the right to nominate, sanction and even terminate judges. Half of its ten members are appointed by the Armenian parliament while the five others are chosen by the country’s judges.
The judges filled two of the three SJC vacancies reserved for them at a conference held on Thursday. Also, the conference did not stop a controversial Court of Cassation judge, Nakhshun Tavaratsian, from being sworn in as another new member of the SJC.
Tavaratsian was elected by fellow judges to the judicial watchdog last year but tendered her resignation shortly afterwards. She declared on Thursday that since her resignation was not accepted at the time she can now join the SJC after taking an oath of office.
Senior My Step lawmakers denounced the development at a joint news conference.
“I cannot comment on the elected judges because decisions of the General Assembly of Judges, if they are made in a manner defined by the law, must be respected,” said Vladimir Vartanian, the chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs. “But I am at least surprised with the holding of that the swearing-in ceremony one year after Mrs. Tavaratsian tendered her resignation.”
“In my view, this procedure can in no way boost the authority of the Supreme Judicial Council,” said Vartanian.
Lilit Makunts, My Step’s parliamentary leader, pointed to the controversial reputation of the judge who had taken the bench in 1996. Echoing statements by civil society figures, Makunts noted that Tavaratsian helped former authorities to take the independent TV station A1+ off the air in 2002 on dubious grounds.
Robert Kocharian, Armenia’s president from 1998-2008, was widely blamed for the A1+ shutdown. Kocharian is now under arrest, accused of corruption and overthrow of the constitutional order.
The SJC was effectively paralyzed last month by the resignations of its chairman, Gagik Harutiunian, four other members, which followed a radical reform of the Armenian judicial system advocated by Pashinian. The prime minister specifically demanded a mandatory “vetting” of all judges two days after a Yerevan court released Kocharian from prison. He said that many of them remain linked to “the former corrupt system.”
Later in June, the parliament elected two new members of the SJC nominated by My Step. Makunts suggested then that the vetting will be carried out by the judicial body and a new anti-corruption agency that will be set up soon.
The parliament majority leader said on Friday that SJC members must also be vetted. But she and fellow My Step lawmakers did not specify who they believe should be doing that.
Pashinian has repeatedly stated that he wants to make the judiciary “truly independent.” His critics claim, however, that he is on the contrary seeking to gain full control over the courts.