Standing from left: The author, Philippe Raffi Kalfayan, and Paris Bar Association members Vincent Nioré and Jean-Yves Leborgne, the vice-chair of the Bar; seated: Ruben Sahakyan, Chairman of the RA Chamber of Advocates, in December 2010, on the occasion of signature of a cooperation agreement.

A Tribute to Ruben Sahakyan, an Exemplary Patriot Who Found His Calling in Law


Ruben Aramich Sahakyan, 74, passed away on October 17, 2021. He was my friend and my partner on the paths of justice and rule of law in Armenia. We were driven by the same patriotism and the same objective of defending rights and freedoms. Our pragmatic approach led to the creation of a system of checks and balances within Armenian institutions and civil society. Those principles and values are still in danger.

He was little known in the diaspora, except in legal circles. Some knew only of his case as one of the members of the team representing former President Robert Kocharyan in the recent cases that hit the political headlines. This represented only a small part of his activities, especially when one considers the depth of his ideas.

He was not interested in partisan politics. He had offered his services to the first three presidents of Armenia. He served in the legal division of the Armenian National Movement (ANM) in 1988, but distanced himself after the political repression of the early 1990s. At the forefront of several judicial cases, he was physically attacked in his own office by the henchmen of Vano Siradeghyan, the then-powerful minister of internal affairs. He held a deep grudge against the first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, because of that.

Beyond the man and his career, this tribute aims to draw some lessons from the partnership we formed, not only as people but as people who worked to benefit Armenia and the diaspora.

Many “experts” try to develop patterns of Armenia-Diaspora cooperation, while the simplest ingredients of the formulation are ignored. Whatever the model, the cooperation rests above all on human relations and the sharing of values and principles. People in the field who have had similar experiences will recognize themselves in this description.

Language of Truth and Courage

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Ruben Sahakyan, born in 1947 (and descended from Vanetsi ancestors), studied law at the Volgograd Law School in Russia, from which he graduated with a specialized degree in criminal law. He began his career as an investigative detective, then as a judicial police commissioner in the Ministry of the Interior of Soviet Armenia. He spoke of this work with enthusiasm, because he had lived through fascinating times both professionally and personally. Out of respect for the principles ruling our friendship, he confessed to me that he had done some things in his career during the Soviet period of which he was not proud. I didn’t question him; his conscience had spoken.

In 1985, he joined the College of Lawyers of the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Immediately after the Sumgait pogroms in Azerbaijan in February 1988, he became the representative of the injured parties. He went to Sumgait then Baku to organize their defense and stayed for five months.

Ruben Sahakyan was courageous; his public speaking skills and his determination pushed forward that courage.

Helping New Generations

His competence as a criminal lawyer and criminologist was unanimously recognized by all in the field of justice. In meetings with judges, prosecutors, and police officers, which I witnessed firsthand, he received a noticeable level of respect and deference.

That did not affect his humility. When solicited for consulting in other branches of the law, he offered the names of other jurists. He was not looking to be the sole star, but rather wanted to delegate so that the best person possible could take on a case.

He always wanted to impart the knowledge he had acquired. In 1997, even before our school of advocates’ project, he took the initiative to gather and train 15 young lawyers in criminal law. These people have become prominent criminal lawyers. Until recently, they would come to see him at his home when they encountered difficulties on cases. They are now bereft of their master.

We completed the reforms of the legal practice, in particular the revision of the laws regulating the profession and its ethics, their compliance with European core principles, its consolidation through the reunification of advocates in a single Chamber of Advocates, and the establishment of the institutional training school for lawyers which was so dear to us, between 2005 and 2013. Once all those tasks completed in 2013, not only had Ruben Sahakyan negotiated the move of the Chamber offices into a more functional building but he had also prepared the transition of his power to a new bar leader.

Serving National Interests and Principles

Ruben Sahakyan had an exemplary national conscience devoid of self-interest and greed.

Our first meeting took place on the benches of the Yerevan Criminal Court in July 1995, where I was conducting judicial observation of political trials on behalf of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). Ruben Sahakyan was heading the pool of lawyers for those accused. I was first accompanied by Michel Zavrian, one of the few courageous lawyers who had defended the militants of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in France of the 1960s, and then Michel Tubiana (another friend that I have just lost early October at age 67), a vibrant and effective defender of the Palestinian rights. Both immediately appreciated Ruben for his human depth and as a good professional.

Ruben Sahakyan and I remained linked to each other. Starting from 1995, he hosted me at his home and I had the privilege of sharing his family life.  Often I would land in the middle of the night but he always welcomed me with a smile and warmth. He was a man of great generosity who supported his family, relatives, friends and neighbors.

The complementarity and power sharing are the keys to an effective Armenia-Diaspora relationship and they are the result of mutual learning and mutual trust.

Serving the national interest is the most important challenge faced by Armenian nationals. For 30 years, the Armenia-Diaspora relationship has not evolved properly. In a time of defeatism and extreme demoralization, instead this is a stampede.  Each citizen of Armenia is trying to secure his or her personal future rather than the future of its country. In the diaspora, the situation is no better. Armenian organizations, increasingly fragmented, are more concerned with the continuity of their existence and focus on their traditional activities without worrying about national priorities. Individually, we have never seen and heard so many “experts” in the Diaspora. Are these analyses worth anything if they are not the result of joint reflection and consultation with domestic resources?

I became a part of the family of Ruben Sahakyan, as well as a member of his friends and professional circles; this closeness was essential for my pro bono engagement and foremost for my understanding of the problems and challenges of Armenia. I was able to observe the mechanisms and codes of this Armenian society, which are much more secret than one would imagine. I learned without judging. I just tried to understand. Conversely, Ruben took advantage of my Western education and working methods and of my networks in the diaspora to observe and learn. That was the great strength of our partnership. When we were participating in a negotiation in Armenia with the authorities or  abroad with partner bar associations, we complemented each other because we had an extraordinary level of mutual understanding.

From 2005, the date of the establishment of the current unified Armenian Chamber of Advocates, and the election of Ruben Sahakyan as its first president, we accelerated the realization of our projects. As special advisor, I was responsible for the international relations of the Armenian bar, including the elaboration and submission of the institutional project for a practice training school of lawyers, by applying for aid from the European Union.

The project was immediately accepted by the European Commission in early 2006 and budgeted. Our collaboration, however, was challenged in 2007. Having heard from Ruben Sahakyan of the circulation in the hands of an off-shore consulting company of the terms of reference of the future call for tender, I seized the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which decided to freeze the project during the investigation.

Ruben, influenced by some jealous people, in Armenia as well as in France, began to doubt my initiative. It did not last long before he realized that my initiative had saved the project (the project was implemented and completed under the supervision of the Council of Europe between 2009 and 2012). This project and its 2.5 million euro funding attracted a lot of attention. A traditional pattern of corruption (executives from the supervisory ministry, offshore consultancy firm, and corrupt executive at the European Commission delegation) had taken hold but we successfully broke the pattern.

The list of our collaborative actions and achievements would be too long to enumerate. What is important to remember is that Ruben Sahakyan was able to overcome all the obstacles and traditional avatars of the Armenia-Diaspora relationship. He had understood what the sharing of values, principles, and responsibilities could offer Armenia. With his passing, I lost not only my brother, but also the one who made me love Armenia and wish to serve it. At a time of multiple questions in Armenian society and on Armenia-Diaspora relations, I hope that the example of Ruben Sahakyan will be a source of reflection and inspiration.

Rest in peace Ruben!  We will continue fighting for the protection of your legacy.

Philippe Raffi Kalfayan

Paris, December 13, 2021


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