The two opposition parties represented in the Armenian parliament categorically rejected on Monday a government proposal to give most Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandate.
Senior lawmakers representing them accused the government of seeking to replace those judges with individuals loyal to it.
Under a bill approved by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s cabinet last week, the Constitutional Court members installed by Armenia’s former governments will continue to receive their salaries, bonuses and other benefits if they resign by January 31.
The bill was drafted by the Armenian Justice Ministry in August shortly after Pashinian implicitly demanded the resignation of those judges, including the court’s chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian. The latter has since been under particularly strong government pressure to resign.
The government pressed ahead with the early retirement offered to the Constitutional Court members despite facing criticism from some Armenian legal experts and opposition leaders who branded it a “bribe.”
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian again defended the bill as it was discussed and approved by the parliament committee on legal affairs. Rustamian said the government is offering the judges an “honorable exit” in an effort to address a lack of public trust in the Armenian judiciary and end “the crisis in the Constitutional Court.”
“There is no such crisis,” countered Gevorg Petrosian of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). He said the government is simply trying to gain control over the country’s highest court.
“Besides, have you talked to taxpayers?” he asked Badasian. “Are Armenian taxpayers ready to feed judges who do not work?”
Both Petrosian and Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), also dismissed the government claims about Armenian courts being widely mistrusted by the population. They argued that the early retirement plan applies only to Constitutional Court members and does not cover hundreds of other judges appointed under the former regimes.
“Do [those judges] have a deal with you? Are they doing whatever you tell them to do?” Marukian said, adding that the financial incentives are also humiliating for the high court justices.
Despite these objections, the parliament committee dominated by pro-government deputies approved the bill and paved the way for its passage by the National Assembly later this week.
To pass, the bill will have to be backed by at least 79 members of the 132-seat parliament. Pashinian’s My Step bloc holds 88 parliament seats.
In a report released in October, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission voiced misgivings about the initial version of the bill. It said the proposed early retirement must be “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,” warned the Strasbourg-based body.