A senior judge has been nominated by his colleagues as another candidate to replace one of the three members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court who were controversially dismissed in June.
The nominee, Yervand Khundkarian, has headed the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest body of criminal and administrative justice, for the last two years. His candidacy was backed by 145 of 195 Armenian judges who gathered and voted in Yerevan at the weekend.
The vote resulted from constitutional changes passed by the Armenian parliament in June. They call for the gradual resignation of seven of the Constitutional Court’s nine justices 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 ousted judges have refused to step down, saying that their removal is illegal and politically motivated. They have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have them reinstated.
Under Armenian law, the government, a general assembly of judges of all courts and the president of the republic must each field one candidate to fill the three high court vacancies. The parliament controlled by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc will then vote to confirm or reject them.
The government picked its candidate on July 23. President Armen Sarkissian has yet to name his nominee.
Some lawyers and human rights criticized the judges’ decision to choose Khundkarian, saying that he took the bench in 2001 and must have therefore been loyal to Armenia’s former governments. One of those lawyers, Nina Karapetian, claimed that this fact alone runs counter to the stated purpose of judicial reforms initiated by the current authorities.
The authorities say that their persistent efforts to get rid of Constitutional Court members installed by the former regimes are part of the reforms. Critics maintain, however, that Pashinian is simply seeking to take control of the court.
Alexey Sukoyan, one of the judges who voted to nominate Khundkarian for the Constitutional Court, defended the 47-year-old with whom he had worked in the same court in the 2000s. “I consider him a good specialist and a very honest person,” he said.
Sukoyan also said that Khundkarian has specialized in civil law and never dealt with politically charges cases. “We worked in parallel with the former authorities and were not one of their components,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Khundkarian made headlines in 2004 when he served as an economic court judge and ruled against the independent TV station A1+ controversially pulled off the air in 2002. A1+ took legal action in a bid to win another broadcasting license.
The current government’s pick for the Constitutional Court, Vahram Avetisian, has also caused controversy.
In a joint petition issued late last month, several dozen supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and relatives of protesters killed during the 2008 post-election unrest in Yerevan urged the government to withdraw the nomination. They said, in particular, that Avetisian’s father Davit upheld prison sentences handed to opposition members and supporters when he served as a senior Court of Cassation judge from 2008-2016.
Avetisian, who is a senior law professor at Yerevan State University (YSU), has dismissed the objections to his candidacy, saying that they are fuelled by individuals motivated by their “parochial and factional interests.”