Ruben Vartazarian was charged with obstruction of justice more than one month after he was strongly criticized by pro-government lawmakers. They accused him of effectively siding with opposition groups and telling judges to do the same.
Vartazarian accused Armenia’s political leadership of ordering the criminal proceedings to replace him with a government ally, Gagik Jahangirian. The latter took over as the SJC’s caretaker chairman shortly after the body empowered to nominate, sanction and fire judges agreed to suspend Vartazarian pending investigation.
Under Armenian law, judges and other judicial officials cannot be prosecuted on charges stemming from their professional activities without the SJC’s consent. Prosecutors say they did not need such permission to charge Vartazarian with illegally interfering in the work of a district court because the case is not connected with the performance of his duties.
Vartazarian claimed the opposite, challenging the legality of his indictment and suspension in a Yerevan court.
The court sided with him in a ruling handed down early this month. It said that the law-enforcement authorities breached Vartazarian’s legal immunity from prosecution and that he must therefore be reinstated as SJC chairman.
Most of the SJC’s eight other members effectively refused to let him again run the body, however, saying that the ruling is addressed to the investigators, rather than the judicial watchdog. Vartazarian responded by asking Armenia’s Administrative Court to obligate the SJC to end his suspension.
The court has not yet scheduled the first hearing on Vartazarian’s appeal. The SJC refused on Monday to comment on it.
Vartazarian enraged Pashinian with his November 15 statement urging Armenian judges to prove that they are “honest professionals,” rather than “judges whimpering under walls.”
Armenian courts refused to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest dozens of opposition leaders and members in the following months. Virtually all of those individuals were prosecuted in connection with street protests sparked by the Pashinian administration’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinian lambasted unnamed “whimpering” judges in 2019 when he accused the Armenian judiciary of maintaining ties with the country’s former leadership. The prime minister claimed in December 2020 that the courts have become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him after the disastrous war. His political allies held Vartazarian responsible for that.
In recent weeks, Armenian judges have sanctioned the pre-trial arrests of several opposition-linked local government officials facing different criminal charges rejected by them as politically motivated. Opposition groups and other critics of the government say these decisions highlight Jahangirian’s growing influence on the Armenian judiciary.
The acting SJC head served as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor from 1997-2006. He was accused by civil activists of covering up crimes and abetting other abuses in the Armenian armed forces throughout his tenure.
Jahangirian again denied those allegations when the Armenian parliament’s pro-government majority installed him as a member of the SJC in January.