The head of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has expressed serious concern over what he described as the Armenian government’s “open conflict” with the Constitutional Court and called for a renewed “normal operation” of Armenia’s constitution.
In a statement released on Tuesday evening, Gianni Buquicchio said all branches of the country’s government should respect each other’s “prerogatives, obligations and competences” set by Armenian law.
“If this is not done, if there lacks democratic culture and maturity, the functioning of the state institutions is compromised and the democratic, civil and economic progress of the society is jeopardized,” warned Buquicchio.
“I call on all sides to exercise restraint, mutual respect and constructive institutional cooperation in order to de-escalate this worrying situation and re-establish the normal operation of the constitution of Armenia,” he added.
The statement came just hours after an Armenian law-enforcement agency said it has collected enough evidence to charge Constitutional Court Chairman of Hrayr Tovmasian with abuse of power.
The Investigative Committee’s announcement was the latest in a series of criminal proceedings launched against Tovmasian following the Constitutional Court’s rejection on October 15 of the Armenian parliament’s demands to replace its chairman.
Tovmasian is under growing pressure from the Armenian authorities accusing him of maintaining ties to the country’s former government toppled in last year’s “Velvet Revolution.” His lawyers say that the criminal charges recommended by the Investigative Committee are part of the “illegal pressure.”
Buquicchio’s carefully worded statement did not explicitly mention the criminal cases against Tovmasian. But in an interview with Armenia’s Shant TV channel aired on Tuesday, the Venice Commission president noted “pressure” exerted on the high court chairman and “many proceedings” against him. He said Tovmasian must be respected because he heads “one of the main state institutions.”
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian on Wednesday welcomed Buquicchio’s statement and said Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government will take it into consideration. But he also said: “The situation around the Constitutional Court is not a matter of mutual respect but rather the result of … the dubious election of the Constitutional Court chairman [in March 2018.]”
Badasian did not deny that the government wants Tovmasian to resign. In that regard, he pointed to the recent circulation of a Justice Ministry bill offering Constitutional Court members installed by Armenia’s former governments financial incentives to resign.
“I attach great importance to refreshing the composition of the Constitutional Court,” the 28-year-old minister told reporters.
Earlier this month the Venice Commission voiced misgivings about the bill in a detailed report on judicial reforms planned by Pashinian’s administration. It said early retirement proposed to the high court judges can be acceptable only if it is “strictly voluntary.”
“It would be unacceptable if each new government could replace sitting judges with newly elected ones of their choice,” warned the Strasbourg-based body scrutinizing the legislations of Council of Europe member states.
Meanwhile, Tovmasian hailed Buquicchio’s statement, saying that its content “stems from the interests of our state.” “Our reaction to Mr. Buquicchio’s appeal is clear: the Constitutional Court once again reaffirms its readiness to resolve the existing situation through mutual respect and dialogue,” he said in written comments to the Pastinfo news agency.