A court in Yerevan allowed investigators on Thursday to hold a former parliament staffer in detention on coup charges which his lawyers said are aimed at stepping up government pressure on Hrayr Tovmasian, the embattled chairman of Armenia’s Constitutional Court.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS) arrested Arsen Babayan, the former deputy chief of the Armenian parliament staff, on Monday before accusing him of involvement in a “usurpation of power” resulting in Tovmasian’s appointment as court chairman in March 2018.
The SIS claimed that former parliament speaker Ara Babloyan illegally accepted and announced the resignation of Tovmasian’s predecessor, Gagik Harutiunian, before receiving a relevant letter from the latter. It said Babayan backdated the letter to enable Tovmasian to become court chairman before the entry into force of sweeping amendments to the Armenian constitution.
The amendments introduced a six-year term in office for the head of Armenia’s highest court. Tovmasian was named to run the court under the previous constitution which allows him to hold the post until the age of 70.
Babloyan insisted on Wednesday that he received and signed Harutiunian’s letter of resignation on March 2, 2015, not three days later, as is claimed by the SIS. The former Constitutional Court chairman said, for his part, that his resignation was voluntary and in accordance with Armenian law.
Nevertheless, Babayan was remanded in pre-trial custody. The district court in the Armenian capital also refused to free him on bail.
One of Babayan’s lawyers, Lusine Sahakian, condemned the court’s decisions and the charges leveled against her client as politically motivated.
“There is no testimony that corroborates the accusations,” Sahakian told reporters outside the court building. “There are only testimonies corroborating the fact that there was no forgery or backdating.”
“It was obvious to us that with this clearly illegal process they were going to imprison yet another person to put further pressure on Hrayr Tovmasian,” she said. “The court has ensured that.”
Babayan also denied any wrongdoing in a letter to the Yerevan daily “Hraparak” sent through his attorneys. The former official urged his sympathizers not to worry about him, saying that he remains in a “combative” mood.
The SIS announced the coup inquiry on October 17 two days after seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges dismissed calls for Tovmasian’s dismissal made by the current Armenian parliament loyal to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. In an appeal to the court, the parliament claimed, among other things, that Tovmasian cannot act impartially because of his past affiliation with the former ruling Republican Party (HHK).
Pashinian similarly charged in July that Tovmasian “privatized” the Constitutional Court with the help of the HHK. Tovmasian countered early this month that the authorities are seeking to oust him in order to gain control over Armenia’s highest court. He said he has no intention to step down.
Critics, notably senior HHK figures, say that Babayan’s arrest and other criminal proceedings targeting Tovmasian are part of Pashinian’s efforts to force the high court chief’s resignation. The prime minister and his political allies deny this.