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Authorities Accused Of Illegally Prosecuting Armenia's Chief Justice


Armenia -- Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian walks out of the court building in Yerevan, December 27, 2019.

Lawyers for Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian insisted on Monday that law-enforcement authorities have brought criminal charges against him in violation of Armenian law.

They also reaffirmed Tovmasian’s strong denial of abuses of power which he had allegedly committed while serving as Armenia’s justice minister from 2010-2014.

Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian’s office claimed on Friday that he had unlawfully privatized an office in Yerevan and also forced state notaries subordinate to the Justice Ministry to rent other offices de facto belonging to him. Tovmasian swiftly denied the accusations, saying that they are part of the Armenian government’s intensifying efforts to force him to resign.

In a statement issued later on Friday, Tovmasian’s lawyers also said that Davtian had no right to indict the chief justice without the consent of most of the eight other members of the Constitutional Court.

The prosecutors argued that under the current Armenian constitution amended in 2015 they need such permission only in cases where a high court judge is prosecuted “in connection with the performance of their duties.” They stressed the fact that Tovmasian is facing criminal cases stemming from his past work in the government.

In a statement, the lawyers countered that the amended constitution came into force in April 2018 shortly after Tovmasian was appointed as court chairman. The prosecutors should have therefore been guided by the previous constitution which gave the Constitutional Court judges unconditional immunity from prosecution, they said, arguing that Armenian laws cannot be enforced retroactively.

One of the lawyers, Amram Makinian, stood by this position when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday. He also dismissed the prosecutors’ arguments.

The lawyers’ statement also accused the prosecutors of breaching Armenia’s Law on the Constitutional Court which stipulates that criminal proceedings against its judges must be confidential and cannot involve “any direct or indirect interference” in their work.

Seven high court judges issued on Monday a joint statement urging law-enforcement authorities to “strictly” respect this legal requirement. They also said that Armenia’s highest court is continuing to “work in a normal way” despite the unprecedented charges leveled against its chairman.

The judges did not say, however, whether they believe the authorities were allowed to prosecute Tovmasian without their consent.

Tovmasian was summoned to the Special Investigative Service (SIS) for further questioning on Monday. The law-enforcement body agreed to postpone the interrogation at the request of his lawyers.

Tovmasian refused to give any testimony when an SIS investigator visited him in his office on Friday. He claimed that the Armenian government warned him this summer that he will be indicted if he refuses to step down.

Armenia -- Supporters of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian block the entrance to the Constitutional Court building in Yerevan, May 20, 2019.
Armenia -- Supporters of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian block the entrance to the Constitutional Court building in Yerevan, May 20, 2019.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian implicitly demanded the resignation of Tovmasian and other Constitutional Court members in August. Pashinian 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 say that he is on the contrary seeking to gain control over all Armenian courts.

The SIS announced its decision to question Tovmasian on Thursday just hours after President Armen Sarkissian signed into law a controversial government bill giving seven Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandate.

Ararat Mirzoyan, the Armenian parliament speaker and a close associate of Pashinian, again defended the law strongly criticized by opposition leaders.

In a weekend interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Mirzoyan described it as a mechanism for a “painless” solution to the Constitutional Court “crisis” in the country. He warned that the authorities may opt for far-reaching constitutional changes if the judges refuse early retirement offered to them.

Recent reports in the Armenian press have said that the authorities are considering constitutional amendments that would merge the Constitutional Court with another tribunal if they fail to change the court’s composition.

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