The Armenian government insisted on Monday that a major Council of Europe body has not forced it to seriously revise sweeping judicial reforms announced by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in May.
It also downplayed a newly disclosed document suggesting that at least some members of the body, the Venice Commission, have defended the legitimacy of Armenia’s Constitutional Court challenged by Pashinian allies.
The document was publicized earlier in the day by a non-governmental organization headed by former Justice Minister Arpine Hovannisian. It constitutes an internal report on a session of the Venice Commission held in Strasbourg on June 21-22.
The session discussed, among other issues, recent developments over the Armenian judiciary and, in particular, Pashinian’s May 20 demands for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges. A high-level Council of Europe delegation visited Yerevan later in May to discuss the planned judicial reform with Pashinian and other senior Armenian officials.
“Agreement was reached that it would be neither necessary nor useful to carry out a general vetting of all sitting judges,” the session report said in reference to that visit. “Instead, disciplinary procedures should be strengthened and a link with the asset declaration system established.”
The report also mentioned a dispute sparked by the June 20 statement made by Vahe Grigorian, a newly elected Constitutional Court judge.
Grigorian claimed that only he and another judge of the 9-member court, Arman Dilanian, can make valid decisions. He argued that under constitutional amendments which took effect last year the court now consists of “judges,” rather than “members,” as was the case until April 2018. He said that the seven other members of the court therefore cannot be considered “judges.”
The eight other members of the Constitutional Courts, including Dilanian, dismissed Grigorian’s claims in a joint statement.
The report said Article 213 of the amended constitution stipulates “clearly and unambiguously” that the court members appointed before 2018 can serve as judges until they turn 65. “It was disturbing that this statement by the judge [Grigorian] had been applauded in parliament and there might be a risk of interference with the mandates of the sitting judges,” it said.
“The Commission asked the President [of the Venice Commission Gianni Buquicchio] to follow the situation with respect to the Constitutional Court closely with a view to making, if appropriate, a public statement,” added the document.
Members and supporters of Armenia’s former leadership seized upon the session report to claim that the Venice Commission, which monitors key legislations of the Council of Europe member states, is pushing back on what they describe as the Pashinian government’s illegal pressure on Armenian courts.
Siranuysh Sahakian, a member of Hovannisian’s Legal Path organization, described the Venice Commission document as a “wakeup call” to the authorities. “This document is very valuable because it is a collective professional opinion of an expert team,” she said.
But Lusine Hakobian, who leads another civic group called Europe In Law, insisted that the document represents the opinion of only some Venice Commission officials, notably those who had been appointed by the former Armenian authorities. “If we look at who is frantically spreading that statement we will have no doubts that this is a propaganda ploy by the former authorities,” she said.
The Armenian Justice Ministry, meanwhile, dismissed the opposition “speculations” and denied any “rift” between the Venice Commission document and Armenian officials’ initial statements on judicial reform. It said that top Council of Europe officials, including Buquicchio, approved of the government’s reform plan when Justice Minister Rustam Badasian presented it to them in Strasbourg early this month.
Turning to the dispute over the Constitutional Court, the ministry emphasized that the government “has not yet expressed any official position” on it. It added that Pashinian will personally comment on the matter “soon.”
Nevertheless, a senior lawmaker from Prosperous Armenia (BHK), one of the two opposition parties represented in the parliament, portrayed the report on the Venice Commission session as a stern warning to Yerevan. Naira Zohrabian said that commission officials voiced similar concerns when she talked to them in Strasbourg last month.
“On my return [to Armenia] I conveyed to the authorities my following concerns: ‘Don’t attempt to solve this dispute over the Constitutional Court through political pressure; or else, the [Council of Europe] reaction will be tough,’” Zohrabian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “One of my pro-government colleagues replied that the opinion of one or two Venice Commission experts is not necessarily the commission’s collective opinion.”