A bill approved by the Armenian government earlier this month calls for the selection of up to 21 such judges for the courts of first instance. Three other new judges specializing in arrests or corruption-related offenses would be appointed to the Court of Appeals.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian said on January 14 that the new judges would reduce the workload of courts increasingly overwhelmed by pending criminal and civil cases. He said they should also hand down “more objective” rulings on arrest warrants demanded by investigators.
In recent months Armenian judges have refused to allow law-enforcement bodies 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 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinian charged last month that Armenia’s judicial system has become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him after the disastrous war. Ruben Vartazarian, the chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, rejected the criticism.
Critics of the government have expressed concern over its plans to install magistrates tasked with allowing or blocking pre-trial arrests. They claim that the government wants to make sure that courts stop hampering politically motivated investigations ordered by it.
The head of the Armenian Chamber of Advocates, the national bar association, echoed those concerns when he spoke with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “Given past [court-related] events, I think that there are political considerations here,” said Ara Zohrabian.
Vartazarian disagreed. “The [new] judges will be selected by the Supreme Judicial Council,” he said. “It will be guided only by the law and will take into consideration only their professional skills just like it has selected other judges. I therefore rule out political decisions by those judges.”