Legal experts from the Council of Europe have given a largely positive assessment of judicial reforms planned by the Armenian government, while warning against aggressive attempts to change the composition of Armenia’s Constitutional Court.
In a report made public late on Monday, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission praised the government for abandoning its initial plans for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges and embracing less radical measures recommended by European experts.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian demanded such a vetting on May 20 following a Yerevan court’s decision to free Robert Kocharian, a former Armenian president facing coup and corruption charges. He said many Armenian judges must be replaced because they are connected to the country’s “corrupt” former leadership and not trusted by the public.
Pashinian’s government watered down the planned judicial reforms after holding talks with officials from the Venice Commission and other Council of Europe bodies later in May. Under a reform package approved by it on October 3, Armenian judges will be subjected instead to “integrity verifications” by the Commission on Preventing Corruption. The latter will scrutinize their financial declarations and launch disciplinary proceedings against judges suspected of having dubiously acquired assets
The Venice Commission welcomed the government’s decision to abandon the “headstrong approach” initially advocated by Pashinian and opt for “more tailor-made solutions.”
“The overall assessment of the legislative amendments contained in the Package is clearly positive,” says the report jointly drawn up by the commission as well as the Council of Europe’s Directorate of Human Rights. “The proposed mechanisms increase the accountability of judges and are more efficient to prevent corruption, without, at the same time, disproportionately encroaching on the judges’ independence.”
The Venice Commission at the same time voiced misgivings about a separate government bill offering Constitutional Court members financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandate.
The bill was circulated in early August shortly after Pashinian implicitly demanded the resignation of most of the court’s nine judges, who were installed by Armenia’s previous governments. Those include Hrayr Tovmasian, the court’s chairman facing growing government pressure to step down.
The bill was criticized by some Armenian legal experts and opposition leaders. They said that it amounts to a legal “bribe.” The Armenian Justice Ministry dismissed the criticism, saying that some eastern European countries introduced similar measures when they reformed their judiciaries.
The Venice Commission concluded that early retirement proposed to the high court judges can be acceptable only if it is “strictly voluntary” and “not designed to influence the outcome of pending cases.”
“It would be unacceptable if each new government could replace sitting judges with newly elected ones of their choice,” it warned.
“The potential simultaneous retirement of several and even as many as seven out of nine justices might hamper the effective functioning of the Court,” added the commission. “The Venice Commission therefore recommends that the Armenian authorities revise the proposed scheme so that this concern is alleviated.”