Law-enforcement authorities on Friday brought criminal charges against the chairman of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, Hrayr Tovmasian, in what he denounced as a “political process” aimed at forcing him to resign.
Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian charged Tovmasian with two counts of abuse of power immediately after the latter was briefly questioned by the Special Investigative Service (SIS) at his office.
In a statement, Davtian’s office claimed that Tovmasian used his position to privatize an office in Yerevan when he served as justice minister from 2010-2014. It said that in 2012 he also forced state notaries subordinate to the Justice Ministry to rent other offices de facto belonging to him at inflated prices.
Tovmasian grinned and struck a defiant note as he talked to journalists shortly after the interrogation.
“I was warned six months ago that one day I will be indicted for not taking X, Y and Z steps,” he said. “The X, Y and Z steps are my resignation. So this accusation … has changed nothing in my life.”
Tovmasian claimed that the indictment is part of strong pressure exerted on him and other Constitutional Court judges by the Armenian government.
“It’s no secret to any of you that in the last six and seven months the Constitutional Court has worked under unprecedented pressures,” he said. “Those pressures have involved not only insults, threats and warnings about [what happened] today but also concrete calls for violence.”
In late October, Armenia’s Investigative Committee claimed to have collected sufficient evidence that Tovmasian abused his powers when he served as justice minister. The committee sent the case to the SIS for further investigation.
Tovmasian’s lawyers categorically rejected the committee’s allegations at the time. One of them, Amram Makinian, on Friday described the accusations brought against the Constitutional Court chairman as “political persecution.”
The SIS announced its decision to question Tovmasian on Thursday just hours after President Armen Sarkissian signed into law a controversial government bill giving Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandate.
The bill passed by the parliament earlier this month applies to seven of the court’s nine judges who were installed by Armenia’s former governments. It was drafted by the Armenian Justice Ministry in August shortly after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian implicitly demanded the resignation of those judges and Tovmasian in particular.
Pashinian has repeatedly accused them of maintaining links with Armenia’s former leadership and impeding reforms which he says are aimed at creating a “truly independent judiciary.” His critics claim that he is on the contrary seeking to gain control over all courts.
Tovmasian expressed confidence that the six other high court judges will spurn early retirement offered by the authorities. He described them as “heroes” fighting for judicial independence in the country.
“Today’s struggle is not about their posts,” said Tovmasian. “Quite the opposite, today’s struggle is about what kind of a judicial authority we will have tomorrow and, more generally, what kind of a state we will have tomorrow.”