In an appeal dismissed by the government as null and void, the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) on Friday asked the Constitutional Court to invalidate constitutional changes mandating the immediate removal of three of its nine judges.
Under Armenian law, such appeals have to be signed by at least one-third of the 132 members of the National Assembly. The BHK, which controls 25 seats, submitted 26 signatures in support of its court challenge against the legality of controversial amendments passed by the parliament earlier this week.
Government officials and lawmaker representing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc insisted that the BHK needed at least 27 signatures. Bright Armenia (LHK), the second parliamentary opposition party, agreed, saying that the Constitutional Court cannot consider the appeal.
The LHK refused to join the BHK initiative despite opposing the constitutional changes engineered by Pashinian.
“The legal community is divided over this issue,” Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK member, said after handing the appeal to court officials in the morning.
“The Constitutional Court will decide whether or not to accept it,” Zohrabian told reporters. “I will not comment on the issue anymore.”
The opposition politician also said that the court will announce that decision within the next two weeks.
The BHK move came just hours after the entry into force of the amendments that bar current and future Constitutional Court judges from serving more than 12 years.
The 12-year term limit was already included in the constitution when it was previously amended in April 2018. But it did not apply to the judges already serving.
A clause in the amended constitution allowed these judges to retain their positions until reaching retirement age. The latest amendments scrapped the clause, requiring the immediate resignation of three of the nine members of the high court. They also stipulate that Hrayr Tovmasian must quit as court chairman but remain a judge.
Tovmasian and the three affected judges refused to step down, however. In a joint statement issued on Thursday, they argued that the authorities have not made similar changes to a separate law on the Constitutional Court which also exempts them from the 12-year term limit.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian dismissed their objections, saying that the constitution takes precedence over the law cited by them. For his part, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian announced shortly after midnight Tovmasian is not the court’s chairman and the three other judges -- Alvina Gyulumian, Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian -- its members anymore.
Nevertheless, Gyulumian reported for work in the morning. She insisted that she remains a Constitutional Court judge.
It also emerged that Tovmasian decided to formally go on vacation late on Thursday, just hours before the amendments came into force. Gyulumian said that she will head the court in his absence.
Meanwhile, another high court justice, Vahe Grigorian, who was appointed by the current Armenian parliament a year ago, hailed the constitutional changes as “historic.” “This is a solution to the Constitutional Court crisis,” he said.
In a written opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe largely backed the proposed changes. But it said it “regrets” the Armenian authorities’ refusal to introduce a transitional period that would “allow for a gradual change in the composition of the court in order to avoid any abrupt and immediate change endangering the independence of this institution.”
The Strasbourg-based commission also said that the authorities should not rush to have Tovmasian replaced by another Constitutional Court chairman.
Tovmasian, Gyulumian and five other judges have been under strong government pressure to step down over the past year. Pashinian has accused them of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding his judicial reforms.
Tovmasian and opposition figures have dismissed Pashinian’s claims and in turn accused the prime minister of seeking to take control of the Constitutional Court.