Hrayr Tovmasian, the embattled chairman of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, has warned that authorities will violate the Armenian constitution if they arrest him without the consent of most other court judges.
In an interview with the “168 Zham” newspaper published late on Thursday, Tovmasian also said that he will step down only if at least five of those judges demand his resignation. And he claimed that his continuing refusal to quit despite strong government pressure is strengthening judicial independence in Armenia.
“I believe that the judicial authority must earn its independence and earning that independence is not that easy,” said Tovmasian. “Maybe these ‘pressures’ or events taking place around the Constitutional Court are the path through which the judicial authority is earning its independence … Nobody will deliver your independence to you on a silver plate.”
The authorities have been trying to oust Tovmasian ever since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian stated in May that many Armenian judges remain linked to the “former corrupt system.” Pashinian accused Tovmasian in July of having “privatized” the Constitutional Court as part of a dubious deal struck with the country’s former leadership in early 2018.
Early this month, the Armenian parliament urged Constitutional Court justices to replace their chairman. A parliamentary resolution drafted by the ruling My Step bloc accused Tovmasian of mishandling appeals lodged by the arrested former President Robert Kocharian and cited his past affiliation with the former ruling Republican Party (HHK).
The court dismissed the resolution on October 14. Two days later, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) launched criminal proceedings against Tovmasian. The law-enforcement body on Tuesday effectively declared illegal his election as court chairman by the former, HHK-controlled parliament in March 2018.
The SIS arrested a former senior parliament staffer as part of the coup investigation. It has stopped short of indicting Tovmasian so far.
The Armenian constitution stipulated before being amended less than two years ago that a Constitutional Court judge cannot be arrested without the consent of at least five of the eight other members of the country’s highest court. Under constitutional amendments that took effect in April 2018, such permission is needed only in cases where the judge faces prosecution in connection with the performance of their duties.
Tovmasian insisted that he is protected by the previous version of the constitution and enjoys “full immunity” from prosecution because of being appointed to the court before April 2018. “They can prosecute, arrest me only with the Constitutional Court’s consent,” he told 168Zham.am.
Tovmasian also confirmed reports that he recently told fellow judges that he will resign as court chairman if at least five of them demand his exit.
The SIS has yet to clarify whether it considers Tovmasian a potential suspect in the high-profile probe.
HHK figures and other critics of the current government say that this and a separate investigation into Tovmasian conducted by the National Security Service (NSS) are politically motivated. They claim Pashinian is seeking to purge the Constitutional Court in order to tighten his hold on power. Tovmasian similarly charged on October 2 that the authorities want to gain control over the court.
Pashinian and his political allies strongly deny this. The premier has repeatedly stated that his aim is to help establish a “truly independent” judiciary.
The NSS raised eyebrows last week by interrogating Tovmasian’s 75-year-old father and two daughters. It too denied any political motives, saying it simply suspected that they had not submitted accurate asset declarations to a state body. The former Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB said it is also investigating a possible misuse of government funds allocated by the Armenian Justice Ministry at a time when it was headed by Tovmasian.
Tovmasian said on Thursday that seeing his relatives summoned to the NSS for questioning was “not a pleasant thing.” “They now joke in our household that only the mom (Tovmasian’s wife) wasn’t summoned by the NSS because she is originally from Ijevan,” he said, referring to Pashinian’s hometown.