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Opposition Party Avoids Court Challenge Against Constitutional Changes


Armenia -- Deputies from the opposition Bright Armenia Party attend a parliament session in Yerevan, January 20, 2020.

The Bright Armenia Party (LHK) said on Wednesday it will not join for now another parliamentary opposition group in challenging the legality of government-backed constitutional amendments calling for the dismissal of three of the nine members of the country’s Constitutional Court.

The LHK’s keenly anticipated decision removed the last potential hurdle to their replacement by other judges to be appointed by the Armenian parliament.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc pushed the amendments through the National Assembly on Monday during an emergency session boycotted by all opposition lawmakers representing the LHK and the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK).

The BHK condemned the amendments as unconstitutional. It said the parliamentary majority’s refusal to send them to the Constitutional Court for examination before passing them in the final reading also violated the Armenian constitution.

The party led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian went on to announce that it will try to appeal to the Constitutional Court to declare the amendments unconstitutional.

Under Armenian law, appeals to the court have to be signed by at least 27 members of the 132-seat parliament. The BHK controls only 25 seats, meaning that it needs the LHK’s backing for such a move. Consequently, the BHK asked LHK parliamentarians to join the court challenge.

Armenia -- Deputies from the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party attend a parliament session in Yerevan, June 19, 2019.
Armenia -- Deputies from the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party attend a parliament session in Yerevan, June 19, 2019.

LHK leader Edmon Marukian suggested on Monday that Armenian laws do not allow parliamentarians to ask the Constitutional Court to assess the legality of constitutional changes.

Marukian gave a different explanation when he announced his party’s decision not to back the BHK initiative during a news conference in Yerevan.

He said that the Constitutional Court has decided to open on July 7 hearings on the legality of coup charges brought against former President Robert Kocharian and that appealing to the court now could be seen as taking sides in Kocharian’s standoff with the Armenian government.

Marukian said that the appeal should therefore be filed only after the Constitutional Court rules on the case against Kocharian. He claimed that it will not be too late for the parliamentary opposition to try to have the controversial constitutional changes repealed.

The BHK disagreed. “I don’t think that we should link the shameful constitutional coup that occurred in the National Assembly to what case will be heard in the Constitutional Court on July 1, July 7 or August 6,” said Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK lawmaker.

Other, more radical opposition forces not represented in the current parliament strongly condemned the LHK’s decision and accused Marukian’s party of helping Pashinian gain control over the country’s highest court.

As well as amending the constitution, the parliament controlled by Pashinian’s bloc also passed on Monday a bill stipulating that constitutional changes will no longer have to be signed by the president of the republic in order to come into force. President Armen Sarkissian signed the bill into law in a decree released by his office on the night from Tuesday to Wednesday.

Armenia -- President Armen Sarkissian (R) and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attend a conference in Dilijan, June 8, 2019.
Armenia -- President Armen Sarkissian (R) and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attend a conference in Dilijan, June 8, 2019.

The BHK’s Zohrabian decried Sarkisian’s decision, accusing the largely ceremonial head of state of placing his personal well-being and business interests above the rule of law. “The Republic of Armenia does not have a president not only de facto but also de jure,” she charged in a lengthy Facebook post.

The presidential decree means that the amendments will take effect one day after being formally promulgated by parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan. According to Justice Minister Rustam Badasian, the three Constitutional Court judges will be relieved of their duties while Hrayr Tovmasian will stop being the court’s chairman on Friday.

Tovmasian will continue to serve only as an ordinary member of the high court. The court is to choose its next chairman after the appointment of the three new judges.

Tovmasian and two of the affected court justices -- Alvina Gyulumian and Felix Tokhian -- questioned the legality of the constitutional changes when they spoke to journalists on Tuesday. Tovmasian argued that that under Armenian law the National Assembly should have sent the amendments to the court for examination before passing them in the second and final reading.

Badasian claimed, however, that legal provisions regulating the matter are not specific enough. “Besides, seven Constitutional Court judges have an obvious conflict of interest,” the minister told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

Pashinian’s administration decided to amend the constitution after a yearlong standoff with the Constitutional Court and Tovmasian in particular. The prime minister has repeatedly accused Tovmasian and six other judges of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding judicial reforms.

Tovmasian and opposition figures sympathetic to him have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is seeking to replace the seven judges with his loyalists.

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