After a heated debate, the Armenian parliament passed on Tuesday a controversial government bill giving most Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandate.
The bill adopted by 83 votes to 33 applies to seven of the court’s nine judges, who were installed by Armenia’s former governments. It stipulates that they will continue to receive their salaries, bonuses and other benefits if they resign early next year.
The bill was drafted by the Armenian Justice Ministry in August shortly after Prime Minister Nikol 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.” Pashinian’s political allies dismissed such claims.
Speaking during the debate that preceded the parliament vote, speaker Ararat Mirzoyan described the Constitutional Court as “one of the bastions of old, corrupt and authoritarian Armenia.”
Opposition lawmakers reaffirmed, meanwhile, their strong objections to the bill. They again accused the Armenian government of seeking to replace the high court judges with individuals loyal to it.
Gevorg Gorgisian of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) said the government is ignoring far more serious issues facing the country. “Our entire energy and resources are focused on solving an issue which nobody cares about,” he said. “If these [Constitutional Court] people are bad or corrupt, jail them.”
Naira Zohrabian, a senior parliamentarian from the Prosperous Armenia Party, said that the payouts offered by the government are also unfair and too costly.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian estimated that the possible early retirement of Tovmasian and the six other court justices will cost the state 630 million drams ($1.3 million) in extra expenditures. He said this cost would justify what the government portrays as a solution to the “Constitutional Court crisis.”
Rustamian also argued that the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission does not object to the proposed early retirement because it would be voluntary.
The Venice Commission voiced in October misgivings about the initial version of the bill. It said the Armenian government should not force the judges to retire in order 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,” it warned in a report.
So far none of the Constitutional Court members has expressed readiness to accept the lucrative government offer. One of them, Alvina Gyulumian, has rejected it as “immoral.”