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Armenian Judge Claims Government Retribution


Armenia -- A court building in Yerevan, June 9, 2020.

A judge in Yerevan claimed on Tuesday that the Armenian authorities are trying to punish him for his refusal to sanction the arrest of a man accused of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The man, Ashot Minasian, was the commander of a volunteer militia from the southeastern town of Sisian which participated in the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Minasian and three opposition figures were detained in November amid anti-government protests in Yerevan sparked by Armenia’s defeat in the six-week war. The National Security Service (NSS) charged them with plotting to kill Pashinian and overthrow the government.

All four men rejected the charges as politically motivated before being freed by courts.

Judge Arman Hovannisian cited a lack of evidence produced by the NSS when he ordered Minasian’s release. Armenia’s Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in response to an appeal lodged by prosecutors.

It emerged last week that the Ministry of Justice has asked the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) to take disciplinary action against Hovannisian. It cited prosecutors’ claims that the judge violated the law when deciding whether or not to issue the arrest warrant.

Both the ministry and the Office of the Prosecutor-General on Tuesday refused to elaborate on the alleged violations.

Hovannisian alleged, meanwhile, government retribution for his decision not to remand Minasian in pre-trial custody. He claimed that the law-enforcement authorities themselves are acting illegally.

Under Armenian law, judges can face disciplinary proceedings for gross misconduct or procedural violations discrediting the judiciary, rather than rulings handed down by them. Only higher courts can declare those rulings illegal or unfair and overturn them.

It is not yet clear when the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) will consider the ministry’s petition. The independent body is empowered to nominate, sanction and fire judges.

The SJC chairman, Ruben Vartazarian, himself was controversially suspended and charged with obstruction of justice on April 15 weeks after Pashinian’s political allies accused him of encouraging courts to free dozens of opposition members and other government critics detained in recent months.

Vartazarian denies the accusations. He says that Pashinian’s administration has ordered the criminal proceedings against him in a bid to replace him with Gagik Jahangirian, an SJC member reputedly allied to Pashinian.

Jahangirian was named as acting head of the SJC pending the outcome of the criminal investigation because of being the oldest member of the judicial watchdog.

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