Ruben Vartazarian told the Hraparak newspaper that he was formally charged with obstruction of justice on Thursday hours after the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) agreed to suspend him pending investigation.
Neither the SJC nor the Office of the Prosecutor-General gave any details of the criminal case.
Under Armenian law, judges and other judicial officials cannot be prosecuted on charges stemming from their professional activities without the SJC’s consent. The SJC said on Thursday that the case against its chairman not connected with the performance of his duties.
Vartazarian asserted, however, that he stands accused of abusing his powers to interfere in the work of a court. He confirmed reports that the accusation is based on incriminating testimony given by Andranik Simonian, a newly appointed deputy director of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS).
Simonian worked as a judge of the court of first instance of the country’s northern Lori province until being moved to the NSS by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian late last month.
Lawmakers representing Pashinian’s My Step alliance harshly criticized Vartazarian during a parliament debate earlier in March. They implicitly accused him of encouraging courts not to allow pre-trial arrests of opposition figures arrested following last year’s war with Azerbaijan. Vartazarian denied those claims.
Speaking to Hraparak, Vartazarian dismissed the charges leveled against him, saying that they are part of government attempts to oust and replace him with Gagik Jahangirian, another SJC member reputedly allied to Pashinian.
“Everything is very clear and simple,” said the SJC chairman, who is also a district court judge.
Jahangirian will head the SJC pending the outcome of the criminal investigation because he is the oldest member of the body overseeing the Armenian judiciary.
Zhanna Aleksanian, a human rights activist, also suggested that Vartazarian is prosecuted for political reasons. She deplored the lack of official information about the case.
“The authorities do not like transparency at all and I don’t exclude that they want to remove Vartazarian in this way in order to install a candidate acceptable to them,” Aleksanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Nikolay Baghdasarian, a pro-government parliamentarian, denied any political motives. “If the authorities wanted to persecute him there were many ways of doing that,” he said. “But the existence of a criminal case means the prosecutors have more evidence than they do in the case of ordinary citizens.”