Representatives of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) have expressed serious concern about what they see as unprecedented tensions between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian.
“Checks and balances are essential in any democratic system,” the PACE co-rapporteurs for Armenia, Andrej Sircelj and Kimmo Kiljunen, said in a weekend statement. “This implies that all institutional powers must act according to the rule of law, and respect it in their deeds and words, including with regard to the principle of the presumption of innocence.”
“If they fail to interact according to these principles, they undermine and damage each other. We are therefore worried about the long-term damage these tensions, that have reached an unprecedented level, could inflict on the judiciary as a whole, in which trust is already very low,” they said.
The statement noted that “so far” Armenia’s government and parliament have adhered to Armenian laws and regulations in the continuing standoff. But it stressed in this context that early retirement, which they have offered to Tovmasian and six other Constitutional Court judges, must be “strictly voluntary.”
“As co-rapporteurs, we will closely monitor that the Armenian authorities continue to act in this way, even if the objective of this mechanism, to uphold the spirit of the constitutional amendments of 2015, seems valid,” added Sircelj and Kiljunen.
They also said that “political players” in the South Caucasus state should “refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.”
Tovmasian has faced in recent months growing government pressure to resign, with the ruling political team accusing him of maintaining ties to Armenia’s “corrupt former regime” and impeding judicial reforms. Also, prosecutors charged him in late December with abusing his powers when serving as justice minister from 2010-2014. The chief justice rejects the accusations as politically motivated.
Pashinian stepped up his verbal attacks on Tovmasian during a January 25 news conference and in the following days. He said that law-enforcement authorities’ allegations that Tovmasian illegally became the head of the country’s highest court shortly before the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” are “effectively proven and irrefutable.”
Tovmasian deplored that claim on January 28, saying that Pashinian violated the presumption of innocence guaranteed by the Armenian constitution. He also made clear that he will not step down.
The PACE co-rapporteurs’ statement prompted diametrically opposite public interpretations from Pashinian’s political allies and opponents. The latter portrayed it as a stern rebuke to the Armenian government.
“There is not a single word or sentence in the statement which accuses Armenia’s authorities of anything,” Ruben Rubinian, a senior pro-government lawmaker heading the Armenian delegation in the PACE, insisted on Saturday. “The statement says that there is tension between two state institutions, and nobody denies that.”
Rubinian said that Pashinian did not violate Tovmasian’s presumption of innocence. Echoing the prime minister’s statements, he also claimed that Tovmasian has become a “political opponent” of the government.
But according to Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), the PACE co-rapporteurs sent a warning to the authorities. “As far as I understand, the co-rapporteurs warned against disrupting the balance between various branches of government and warned various branches of government not to trespass each other’s prerogatives,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.