The head of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has again expressed serious concern over the “open conflict” between Armenia’s government and Constitutional Court and called for its quick de-escalation.
In a statement released late on Monday, Gianni Buquicchio reaffirmed the commission’s view that seven of the court’s nine members must be free to decide whether to accept early retirement offered to them by the government.
“I would like to recall the recommendations made in the opinion of the Venice Commission adopted in October 2019 that any early retirement scheme at the Constitutional Court has to remain truly voluntary, exclude any undue political or personal pressure on the judges concerned and must be designed not to influence the outcome of pending cases,” said Buquicchio.
“Recent public statements and acts do not meet these criteria and will not be conducive to deescalating the situation,” he said. “Democratic culture and maturity require institutional restraint, good faith and mutual respect between State institutions.”
“I call again on all sides to exercise restraint and to de-escalate this worrying situation in order to ensure the normal operation of the constitution of Armenia,” added Buquicchio.
Buquicchio made a similar appeal in October as Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian faced growing pressure from the Armenian authorities accusing him of maintaining ties to the country’s former leadership and impeding judicial reforms. The pressure intensified in the following months.
The Armenian parliament passed in December a government bill offering Tovmasian and six other Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to retire before the end of their mandate. None of them has accepted the offer so far.
Later in December, prosecutors charged Tovmasian with abusing his powers when serving as justice minister from 2010-2014. He 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. The chief justice rebutted the attacks and made clear on January 28 that he has no intention to step down.
The standoff has also prompted concern from representatives of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). In a weekend statement, the two PACE co-rapporteurs for Armenia said “political players” in the South Caucasus state should “refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.”
Pashinian’s political allies and opponents have made diametrically opposite public interpretations of the two statements from Strasbourg.
Ruben Rubinian, a senior pro-government lawmaker heading the Armenian delegation in the PACE, on Tuesday insisted that Buquicchio’s statement is in tune with the Pashinian administration’s position on the “Constitutional Court crisis.”
Rubinian claimed that the Venice Commission president warned not the authorities in Yerevan but “various circles” who he said are pressuring high court judges to reject the proposed early retirement. “If the PACE co-rapporteurs or the Venice Commission president wanted to say that the authorities are to blame for this, they would have said that,” he told a news conference.
“At the highest level the authorities are trolling the PACE co-rapporteurs and the Venice Commission president,” countered Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party. “They are simply making fun of those people.”
“And those people are also to blame for being made fun of because if their statements allow for differing interpretations then maybe our colleague [Rubinian] is right to mock them,” he said.
Both Marukian and Naira Zohrabian, a senior parliamentarian from the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, said the critical statements by the Council of Europe officials are addressed to the Armenian government.