The chairman and three other members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court dismissed as a result of government-backed constitutional changes have challenged the legality of their removal at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
They also want the ECHR to have them reinstated at least until a verdict on their appeal. The ECHR is expected to decide before the end of this week whether to issue such an injunction.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc pushed the controversial amendments to the Armenian constitution through the parliament late last month. The amendments extended a 12-year term limit to all nine members of the Constitutional Court, thereby mandating the immediate dismissal of three court justices who had taken the bench in the 1990s. They also stipulate that Hrayr Tovmasian must quit as court chairman but remain a judge.
In a joint statement issued on June 25, Tovmasian and the three ousted judges -- Alvina Gyulumian, Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian -- said they have no intention to resign because they believe the constitutional changes are null and void. Tovmasian also said separately that the parliamentary majority’s refusal to send the changes to the Constitutional Court for examination before their passage was unconstitutional.
The defiant judges appealed to the ECHR in the following days. The Strasbourg-based court appears to have acted quickly on the unprecedented legal action, sending a number of relevant questions to the Armenian government last week.
The government answered them in writing on Monday, according to its representative to the ECHR, Yeghishe Kirakosian.
Kirakosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday that the ECHR’s decision on the injunction sought by the plaintiffs will likely be announced already this week.
The official suggested that the ECHR will not order a freeze on the replacement of the Armenian high court judges. “As a lawyer, as someone familiar with European Court practices … I don’t think that the court has such powers,” he said.
Tovmasian and six 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 Armenia’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 country’s highest court.
In a written opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe largely backed the amendments in question. However, it criticized the Pashinian administration’s 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 June 26 letter to Tovmasian, Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio reiterated that the amendments are “not in line” with the commission’s recommendations.