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State Body Defends Armenian Courts Against Criticism From Government


Armenia - The head of Supreme Judicial Council, Ruben Vartazarian, at a press conference in Yerevan, December 29, 2020.

The head of a state body overseeing Armenian courts rejected on Tuesday Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s latest strong criticism of the country’s judiciary.

Ruben Vartazarian, the chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, insisted that the courts do not execute orders issued by the government or the opposition. Nor are they influenced by public opinion, he said.

“If there are such judges they will face disciplinary or criminal proceedings,” Vartazarian told a news conference.

In the last few months various Armenian judges have refused to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest dozens of opposition leaders and members as well as other anti-government activists. Virtually all of those individuals are prosecuted in connection with angry protests sparked by the Pashinian administration’s handling of the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashinian charged over the weekend that Armenia’s judicial system has become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him in the aftermath of the disastrous war. Justice Minister Rustam Badasian likewise accused judges last week of routinely acting in an unprofessional and “non-objective” manner.

Vartazarian dismissed those statements while admitting that “as a citizen” he has “many questions” about decisions made by local courts. He said that the Armenian Justice Ministry and law-enforcement agencies have legal authority to initiate disciplinary action or criminal proceedings against allegedly delinquent judges.

The Armenian constitution gives the Supreme Judicial Council wide-ranging powers, including the right to nominate, sanction and even fire judges. No judge can be indicted without the state watchdog’s consent.

Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian chairs a meeting with senior law-enforcement and judicial officials, Yerevan, November 30, 2020.
Armenia -- Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian chairs a meeting with senior law-enforcement and judicial officials, Yerevan, November 30, 2020.

Pashinian was accused by opposition leaders and Armenia’s human rights ombudsman of pressuring the judiciary after summoning several senior judges and members of the Supreme Judicial Council to a meeting with top law-enforcement officials late last month.

The meeting focused on ongoing criminal investigations into riots that broke out in Yerevan on November 10 following the announcement of a Russian-brokered ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinian seemed upset with courts’ refusal to sanction the pre-trial arrest of many of the individuals charged with ransacking key government buildings and beating up parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan.

Pashinian also sparked controversy when he urged supporters to block court buildings across the country after a Yerevan court released former President Robert Kocharian from custody in May 2019. He accused the judiciary of remaining linked to the “corrupt former regime” and vowed to replace many judges.

Pashinian’s government subsequently abandoned its plans for a mandatory “vetting” of all judges after consultations with European legal experts. A government bill on judicial reforms enacted in March 2020 calls instead for a “verification of the integrity” of judges which is carried out by a state anti-corruption body.

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