In a move denounced by the Armenian opposition, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc has drafted constitutional changes that would dismiss seven of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court locked in a bitter dispute with the government.
The amendments were unveiled on Wednesday one day before an emergency session of the Armenian parliament which will discuss a separate My Step bill limiting the court’s powers.
They call for the replacement of the court’s embattled chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, and six other judges who were installed by the former Armenian governments.
An explanatory note released by 37 co-sponsors of the proposed changes argues that they are not covered by the 2015 constitutional changes envisaging shorter tenures for new members of the country’s highest court. It also claims that the court lacks “democratic legitimacy.”
“The three branches of government in Armenia were usurped by the former authorities: [former Presidents] Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian and their satellites,” said deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonian.
“The people of Armenia liberated the government and the National Assembly from their claws and they are now going to liberate the judicial system as well,” he added, referring to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that toppled Sarkisian and brought Pashinian to power.
Representatives of the two parliamentary opposition parties rejected the proposed changes and questioned their legality, however.
“This path chosen by the authorities carries a great danger for the rule of law in Armenia,” Edmon Marukian, the leader of the Bright Armenia Party (LHK), told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “It could set a bad precedent for any future government to oust judges and handpick new ones in the same way.”
Marukian also warned that the authorities risk putting Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe. “If they want to get Armenia in serious trouble and relegate us to the level of Azerbaijan, which is criticized for similar problems, then it means they … do not realize what dangers this decision is fraught with,” he said.
Tovmasian has faced in recent months growing government pressure to resign, with the ruling political team accusing him of maintaining ties to the “corrupt former regime” and impeding judicial reforms. Prosecutors charged him in late December with abusing his powers when serving as justice minister from 2010-2014.
The Constitutional Court chairman rejects the accusations as politically motivated. He said last week that he has no intention to resign.
Earlier in December, the parliament passed a government bill offering Tovmasian and the six other Constitutional Court judges financial incentives to retire before the end of their mandate. None of them has accepted the offer so far.
In a statement released on Monday, the president of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, warned against “any undue political or personal pressure on the judges concerned.”
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Marukian said that the authorities are planning to hold a referendum on the draft amendments to the constitution. He deplored their unwillingness to have the Venice Commission examine the amendments before such a vote.
The parliament may debate the amendments as early as on Thursday. The official agenda of its extraordinary session, approved by the parliament leadership after repeated delays on Wednesday evening, includes a package of other legal amendments also drafted by the ruling bloc. They would allow the 132-member National Assembly, in which My Step holds 88 seats, to bypass the Constitutional Court to amend the constitution.
Under existing Armenian laws, the high court has to examine and validate any constitutional changes before they can be put on a referendum or be passed by the National Assembly.