Members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court will continue to receive their salaries and other benefits if they resign before November, according to a government bill made public late last week.
The bill, drafted by the Justice Ministry following harsh criticism of the court’s chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, voiced by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, also stipulates that the court justices will have to be suspended if law-enforcement authorities launch criminal proceedings against them.
In a July 19 interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Pashinian accused Tovmasian of cutting political deals with former President Serzh Sarkisian to become the head the country’s highest court and hold that position until 2035 through constitutional amendments that took effect in April 2018. “The Constitutional Court must get out of this status of a privatized booth,” he said, implicitly demanding changes in the court’s composition.
Tovmasian rejected the verbal attack as offensive and warned Pashinian’s government against trying to force him and other court members to resign. He pointedly declined to deny pro-opposition media claims that the government has already instructed law-enforcement bodies to explore ways of exerting such pressure on them.
The Justice Ministry bill, which has yet to be formally approved by the government, involves a set of draft amendments to an Armenian law on the Constitutional Court. The ministry called for a public debate on the amendments when it posted them on a government website.
One of the proposed measures gives Tovmasian and the eight other court judges the option of tendering their resignations by October 31. In return, they would keep receiving their salaries and other perks until what would have been the end of their legal tenure. The bill implies that the success of judicial reforms planned by the Armenian authorities requires a different makeup of the Constitutional Court.
Some legal experts as well as critics of the government have denounced this amendment, saying that it amounts to a legal “bribe” offered to the judges.
“This provision has, to put it mildly, nothing to do with the concept of a rule-of-law state,” said Ruben Melikian, a lawyer critical of the government.
Melikian also described as unconstitutional another amendment envisaging the suspension of the Constitutional Court members facing criminal investigations.
Nina Karapetiants, another lawyer, also criticized the proposed changes. Karapetiants said that while the Constitutional Court is responsible for validating “falsified” elections held in Armenia in the past the government should not try to get rid of its judges in this fashion.
But Grigor Bekmezian, a member of Armenia’s Supreme Judicial Council recently installed by the government-controlled parliament, disagreed. He insisted that the government is proposing a workable solution to the “constitutional crisis” in the country.
The existence of such a crisis was alleged in June by Vahe Grigorian, the Constitutional Court’s newest judge also elected by the current parliament. Grigorian claimed that only he and another judge of the 9-member court, Arman Dilanian, can make valid decisions because they were elected after the constitutional changes came into force over a year ago.
Grigorian argued that the under the amended constitution the Constitutional Court now consists of “judges,” rather than “members,” as was the case until April 2018. He said that the other members therefore cannot be considered “judges.”
The eight other members of the Constitutional Courts, including Dilanian, dismissed those claims. They countered that an article of the amended constitution makes clear that the court “members” appointed before 2018 can serve as “judges” until they turn 65.
Grigorian’s position was backed by some senior pro-government lawmakers. The government has stopped short of explicitly and formally endorsing it, however. Citing the Justice Ministry bill, Melikian suggested that the government recognizes all Constitutional Court members as “judges.”
The pressure on the high court followed sweeping judicial reforms promised by Pashinian in May. The premier has repeatedly stated that he wants to make Armenia’s courts “truly independent.” His political opponents and other critics maintain, however, that he is on the contrary seeking to gain full control over the judiciary.