Judicial reforms launched by the Armenian government are a far cry from a mandatory “vetting” of all judges demanded by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian last year, the head of a state anti-corruption watchdog said on Tuesday.
Pashinian accused the Armenian judiciary of remaining linked to the country’s “corrupt former regime” and vowed to replace many judges last May after a district court in Yerevan freed Robert Kocharian, a former president facing coup and corruption charges strongly denied by him.
Pashinian’s government agreed, however, to water down the planned judicial reforms after subsequent consultations with legal experts from the Council of Europe. In an October report, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission praised it for abandoning the “headstrong approach” initially adopted by the prime minister.
The Armenian Justice Ministry said afterwards that the reforms will involve a “verification of the integrity” of judges which will be carried out by the newly formed Commission on Prevention of Corruption.
Under a relevant government bill passed by the Armenian parliament last month, the commission will scrutinize their assets and income declarations. It is empowered to not only launch disciplinary proceedings against judges suspected of having dubiously acquired assets but also recommend their prosecution by law-enforcement bodies.
The commission chairwoman, Haykuhi Harutiunian, seemed unimpressed with these powers. She complained that the government declined to incorporate into the bill proposals made by the commission.
“The commission will not be taking any actions in connection with decisions made by judges, their conduct or so-called integrity,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The official appointed by the parliament argued that the anti-graft body will only have access to detailed information about judges’ assets and financial transactions declared after July 2017.
“The commission will have a more limited capacity to look into the legality of assets and incomes declared in 2016, 2015, 2014 or 2013 and to take action in case of finding violations in them,” she said.
Harutiunian insisted that the judicial reforms have therefore little to do with vetting. The authorities will only vet lawyers aspiring to become judges, she said.
Commenting on these remarks, Deputy Justice Minister Srbuhi Galian stressed the importance of the powers given to Harutiunian’s commission.
Opposition groups, notably supporters of Kocharian and another former Armenian president, Serzh Sarkisian, have repeatedly accused the current authorities of seeking to gain control over the judiciary. They have pointed to charges brought in July against the judge who ordered Kocharian’s release from prison. The ex-president was arrested again in June.
The authorities deny such claims. Pashinian has repeatedly stated that the reforms initiated by him will help to make Armenian courts “truly independent.”