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Armenian Constitutional Court Fails To Elect New Chair


Armenia -- Judge Yervand Khundkarian attends a parliament debate on his appointment to the Constitutional Court, Yerevan, September 14, 2020.

After three days of discussions, members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court failed to elect its new chairperson on Friday.

The position has been vacant ever since the Armenian parliament enacted in June controversial constitutional amendments initiated by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The amendments call for the gradual resignation of seven of the court’s nine judges locked in a standoff with Pashinian’s political team. Three of them had to resign with immediate effect. The constitutional amendments also required Hrayr Tovmasian to quit as court chairman but remain a judge.

Tovmasian and the ousted judges consider their removal illegal and politically motivated. They have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have them reinstated.

This did not stop the parliament controlled by Pashinian’s My Step bloc from electing three new court judges earlier this month. One of them, Yervand Khundkarian, was the only candidate nominated for the post of court chairman.

The nine justices spent three days discussing practical modalities of the election and Khundkarian’s candidacy. One of them, Edgar Shatirian, told reporters afterwards that Khundkarian failed to garner at least five votes needed for succeeding Tovmasian as court chairman. He said he and his colleagues will meet on Monday to start the election process anew.

Shatirian did not confirm or deny news reports saying that only three judges backed Khundkarian’s appointment and that the six others voted against him or did not vote at all.

Armenia -- The main meeting room of the Constitutional Court, Yerevan, September 3, 2019.
Armenia -- The main meeting room of the Constitutional Court, Yerevan, September 3, 2019.

Another judge, Vahe Grigorian, openly voiced his opposition to the nominee when he spoke to journalists ahead of the vote.

Grigorian was appointed to the Constitutional Court one year after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Pashinian to power. He was at odds with Tovmasian and six other court members installed by former Armenian governments.

Despite challenging the legality of his ouster, Tovmasian took part in the discussions on the new court chair held behind the closed doors. He insisted on Thursday that there is no contradiction between his participation and rejection of the constitutional changes.

“I will continue to fight until constitutionality in Armenia on this issue is restored,” said the former chief justice. “I don’t know when I will succeed, but I will keep fighting.”

Tovmasian also said that he will not take part in Friday’s vote because he believes the Armenian authorities have made sure that Khundkarian’s election is a forgone conclusion. But he claimed the following morning that the authorities are now also considering “other scenarios” as well.

Armenia -- Former Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian speaks to journalists, Yerevan, September 25, 2020.
Armenia -- Former Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian speaks to journalists, Yerevan, September 25, 2020.

Khundkarian headed the Court of Cassation, Armenia’s highest body of criminal and administrative justice, until the National Assembly approved his appointment to one of the vacant Constitutional Court seats. He was nominated by a national convention of judges held in August.

Several Armenian civic groups have strongly criticized Khundkarian’s appointment, saying that it will not address what Pashinian has repeatedly described as a lack of public trust in the Constitutional Court.

The critics argue that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled against Armenia in connection with several verdicts handed down by Khundkarian in the past. In particular, the Strasbourg-based court ordered the authorities in Yerevan in 2008 to compensate the independent TV station A1+ controversially pulled off the air in 2002.

Pashinian strongly defended on September 16 the choice of Khundkarian and the two other new judges. He said that their critics are primarily concerned with their own parochial interests, rather than the rule of law.

Alen Simonian, a deputy parliament speaker representing Pashinian’s bloc, echoed the prime minister’s stance on Friday. He said that there are no candidates acceptable to everyone in Armenia.

“There will always be attempts to promote one’s own candidate and have an influence,” Simonian said before the Constitutional Court vote. “We chose a candidate after taking into account all concerns.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the two parliamentary opposition parties reiterated that they believe the recent constitutional changes were enacted in breach of other articles of the Armenian constitution.

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