Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc pushed through the parliament on Tuesday more legal amendments meant to complete the controversial dismissal of three of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court.
President Armen Sarkissian pointedly declined to sign the relevant bill into law, however. Sarkissian’s office said he notified parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan about his decision.
The office gave no reasons for the decision. Nor it did say whether Sarkissian will ask the Constitutional Court to evaluate the amendments’ conformity with the Armenian constitution.
Under the constitution, the parliament speaker must sign a bill into law if the president refuses to do so.
The parliament already approved on June 22 constitutional changes calling for their replacement by other judges to be appointed by its pro-government majority.
The changes require the gradual resignation of seven members of the high court installed before April 2018. Three of them are to resign with immediate effect. Also, 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 last week, they argued that the authorities have not made similar changes to a separate Armenian law on the Constitutional Court.
The National Assembly did just that on Tuesday. Another amendment passed by it made the ousted justices eligible for a state pension.
The parliament controlled by My Step also altered a legal procedure for the appointed of the new Constitutional Court members. They will be nominated by the Armenian government, President Armen Sarkissian and an assembly of the country’s judges. The high court will pick its new chairperson shortly after the three vacancies are filled by the parliament.
The latest amendments were passed after a short debate that was boycotted by the two opposition parties represented in the parliament. One of them, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), says that the constitutional changes contradict other articles of the Armenian constitution and were enacted with serious procedural violations.
The BHK as well as two other, extraparliamentary opposition parties -- the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and Hayrenik (Fatherland) -- demanded on Tuesday a criminal investigation into what they called a “usurpation of power.” In a 9-page “crime report” submitted to the Office of the Prosecutor-General, they claimed that Pashinian’s political team has illegally seized control of the Constitutional Court.
Tovmasian and the three ousted judges -- Alvina Gyulumian, Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian -- also challenge the legality of the constitutional changes. Gyulumian has pledged to ask the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to reinstate her.
Pashinian and his political allies maintain that the constitution was amended in a lawful manner. A senior My Step lawmaker said last week that the amendments will eventually result in a Constitutional Court “enjoying the public’s trust.”
Tovmasian and most other court justices 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 make the Constitutional Court loyal to the current government.
In a written opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe largely backed the constitutional 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.