The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) said on Thursday Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian has notified it about the opening of a criminal case against its chairman, Ruben Vartazarian. In a statement, it said Vartazarian was therefore suspended as head of the SJC and a Yerevan district court judge pending investigation.
Neither the SJC nor Davtian’s office gave any details of the investigation. They said only that the criminal proceedings are not connected with the performance of Vartazarian’s duties.
Vartazarian made no public statements on the development. Some media outlets reported that he was summoned to the Special Investigative Service (SIS) for questioning later on Thursday. The law-enforcement agency did not confirm or deny this as of 10 p.m. local time.
Vartazarian faced a barrage of harsh criticism from lawmakers representing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc during a question-and-answer session in the Armenian parliament in early March.
They accused him of effectively siding with opposition groups trying to topple Pashinian. They pointed to a November 15 statement in which Vartazarian urged judges to prove that they are “honest professionals,” rather than “judges whimpering under walls.”
Pashinian lambasted unnamed “whimpering” judges in 2019 when he accused the Armenian judiciary of maintaining ties with the country’s former leadership.
The My Step deputies charged that with his controversial statement Vartazarian encouraged courts to hand down anti-government rulings. The SJC chairman flatly denied that.
In recent months, 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 street protests sparked by the Pashinian administration’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinian claimed in December that Armenia’s judicial system has become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him after the disastrous war. Vartazarian rejected the criticism.
Vartazarian has headed the SJC for almost two years. The body empowered to nominate, sanction and fire Armenian judges will be run by its oldest member, Gagik Jahangirian, at least until the end of the inquiry.
The parliament controlled by the ruling bloc elected Jahangirian and another lawyer to the SJC in January. Critics of the Armenia government say that Pashinian expects them to help increase his influence on courts.
Jahangirian criticized Pashinian’s political team for not “purging” the judiciary when he spoke in the parliament in January. He called for “getting rid of judges who committed blatant human rights violations.”
Jahangirian himself was accused of serious human rights abuses when he served as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor from 1997-2006. He has always denied the allegations voiced by civic activists.