Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian defended on Tuesday sweeping judicial reforms initiated by his government, again accusing Armenia’s former leadership of seeking to retain control over courts.
“We are absolutely not interested in controlling the judicial system,” Pashinian insisted during a conference held in Yerevan. “We are fundamentally against having a judicial system under [government] control.”
“But when Armenia’s government demonstrated its will to … abandon the practice of controlling the judicial system it emerged that this created some room for those who used to control the system,” he said. “They construed this as an opportunity to continue to exercise control over the judicial system, thereby trying to hold back the democratic change that has occurred in Armenia.”
“The Armenian judiciary must be subjected, from top down, to profound, substantive changes so that it becomes truly independent,” he added.
Pashinian accused Armenian judges of being linked to “the corrupt former system” and demanded their mandatory “vetting” in May after a Yerevan court freed Robert Kocharian, a former president facing coup and corruption charges strongly denied by him. He also urged supporters to block court buildings across the country in protest.
Opposition groups, notably supporters of Kocharian and another former president, Serzh Sarkisian, have condemned those moves. They say that Pashinian is seeking to gain control over the judiciary and thus tighten his grip on power.
The critics point to charges brought in July against the judge who ordered Kocharian’s release from prison and separate criminal proceedings launched last month against Hrayr Tovmasian, the embattled chairman of Armenia’s Constitutional Court.
Tovmasian, who previously served as a senior parliamentarian allied to Sarkisian, claimed in early October that the current authorities want to be able to make unconstitutional decisions. Pashinian’s political allies dismissed those claims.
After consultations with legal experts from the Council of Europe held later in May, Pashinian’s government dropped its plans for the “vetting” of judges and opted instead for a less radical “verification of the integrity” of judges. The latter will have their assets and income declarations scrutinized by the Commission on Preventing Corruption.
The commission formed by the Armenian parliament this month is empowered to launch disciplinary proceedings against judges suspected of having dubiously acquired assets.
In a report released last month, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission gave a largely positive assessment of the judicial reforms planned by the Armenian government. It specifically welcomed the government’s decision to abandon the “headstrong approach” initially advocated by Pashinian.