The 59-year-old judge, Mnatsakan Martirosian, has presided over many politically charged trials ever since taking the bench 24 years ago. He has handed down guilty verdicts in virtually all of those cases.
In particular, Martirosian is known for giving prison sentences to former opposition figures, including Nikol Pashinian, who led the 2008 postelection protests in Yerevan which resulted in deadly clashes with security forces.
He continued to routinely rubber-stamp arrest warrants sought by prosecutors after Pashinian swept to power in 2018. He allowed the pre-trial arrests of current opposition activists and other critics of the Armenian prime minister.
In a decree requested by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), President Vahagn Khachaturian on Monday appointed Martirosian as chairman of Yerevan’s Court of General Jurisdiction employing about 60 judges.
The SJC, which oversees the Armenian courts, on Tuesday refused to comment on its decision to nominate Martirosian for the post.
Civil rights activists condemned the decision as a serious blow to judicial independence. They pointed to the controversial judge’s long track record.
“Maybe Pashinian feels more comfortable with a judge executing orders issued by the incumbent authorities,” said Daniel Ioannisian of the Union of Informed Citizens.
“The authorities feel like they need a judge who will not bow to pressure from skilled and expensive lawyers and send criminals to prison,” Ioannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “This means that the authorities have completely failed in their judicial reforms.”
The SJC sparked similar uproar in November when it tried to appoint Martirosian to a newly created anti-corruption court. The judge withdrew his candidacy shortly afterwards.
The SJC is headed by Karen Andreasian, a former justice minister and member of Pashinian’s Civil Contract party. Just days after Andreasian took over as SJC chairman in October 2022, a member of the judicial body resigned, saying that it can no longer protect judicial independence.
Earlier this month, the SJC ousted another Yerevan judge on the grounds that one of his past verdicts was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It went on to promote Martirosian despite the fact that the ECHR also struck down of some of his rulings.
Opposition groups, lawyers and some judges have accused Pashinian’s government of seeking to increase its influence on courts under the guise of Western-backed “judicial reforms.” Pashinian and his political allies have denied that.