The 20 judges are to be nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and confirmed by Armenia’s newly elected parliament in which Pashinian’s Civil Contract party will have a comfortable majority. The SJC, which oversees Armenia’s courts, formally proposed their appointment last week, citing amendments to the Judicial Code enacted earlier this year.
Under the government-drafted amendments, the new judges will mostly deal with pre-trial arrests of criminal suspects and search warrants sought by law-enforcement bodies. They will supposedly reduce the workload of courts increasingly overwhelmed by pending criminal and civil cases.
Speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting in Yerevan, Pashinian said the upcoming judicial appointments will be part of “substantive reforms” of the Armenian judiciary initiated by his administration. He said the new judges will bring “new insights and new approaches” to the courts of first instance and the Court of Appeals.
The government moved to increase the number of judges after Armenian courts 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 were prosecuted in connection with angry protests sparked by Pashinian’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The prime minister charged in December that the judiciary has become part of the country’s “pseudo-elite” trying to topple him after the disastrous war.
Critics claim that Pashinian simply wants to install loyal judges who would duly allow the pre-trial arrests of his political opponents and execute other government orders.
The SJC is empowered to not only nominate judges but also sanction and fire them. Its chairman, Ruben Vartazarian, was controversially suspended and charged with obstruction of justice in April after Pashinian’s political allies accused him of encouraging courts to free the arrested government critics.
Vartazarian denies the accusations. He has said the authorities ordered the criminal proceedings 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. According to some media outlets, he has since been trying to increase government influence on courts.
Jahangirian criticized Pashinian’s political team in January for not “purging” the judiciary. He called for “getting rid of judges who committed blatant human rights violations.”
Jahangirian himself was accused by media and civic activists of committing serious human rights abuses when he served as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor from 1997-2006.