The National Assembly will debate and almost certainly pass on Tuesday further legal amendments designed to complete the controversial dismissal of three of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court.
The parliament already approved on June 22 amendments to the Armenian constitution calling for their replacement by other judges to be appointed by its pro-government majority. The constitutional changes rejected by the opposition 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 gradual resignation of seven members of the high court installed before April 2018. Three of them -- Alvina Gyulumian, Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian -- are to resign with immediate effect. The amendments also stipulate that Hrayr Tovmasian must quit as court chairman but remain a judge.
Tovmasian and the three 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.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step was quick to draft relevant changes to the law in question. A senior My Step deputy, Vahagn Hovakimian, announced on Monday that they will be debated at an emergency session of the parliament scheduled for Tuesday. With Pashinian’s bloc controlling at least 88 of the 132 parliament seats, their swift passage is all but a forgone conclusion.
The chief of the Constitutional Court staff, Edgar Ghazarian insisted on Saturday that Tovmasian and the three other judges technically continue to perform their duties.
Tovmasian formally went on vacation late on Thursday, just hours before the constitutional changes came into force. Gyulumian said that she will temporarily head the court in his absence.
Pashinian and parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan countered, however, that the court’s acting chairman is Ashot Khachatrian, the oldest of the six other judges. Mirzoyan made a point of meeting with Khachatrian on Saturday.
In a weekend interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Gyulumian maintained that she remains a high court justice. She further stood by her claims that the 12-year term limit does not apply to her also because she most recently took the bench in 2014.
Gyulumian, 64, had also served as a Constitutional Court judge from 1996-2003. She says that those years cannot be added to the length of her current tenure.
Gyulumian again warned that she will challenge the legality of her ouster in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). She was a member of the Strasbourg-based court from 2003-2014.
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.
In a written opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe largely backed the amendments drafted by the Armenian authorities. But it criticized the 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 body also said that the authorities should not rush to have Tovmasian replaced by another Constitutional Court chairman.
In a letter to Tovmasian publicized by the Constitutional Court on Friday, Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio reiterated that the amendments are “not in line” with the commission’s recommendations.