The parliament committee on human rights holds a discussion attended by judges and legal experts, January 13, 2022.

Armenian Judges Decry ‘Government Pressure’

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By Naira Nalbandian

YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — A group of judges have accused the Armenian authorities of seeking to curb judicial independence through disciplinary proceedings against their colleagues and arbitrary assignment of court cases.

Some of them spoke up on January 13 during a special meeting of the Armenian parliament committee on human rights which was organized by its opposition chairwoman, Taguhi Tovmasyan, and boycotted by its pro-government members.

“My fellow judges have the impression that these disciplinary proceedings are launched in an attempt to intervene in the work of judges,” Arman Hovannisyan, a judge of a Yerevan court of first instance, told the committee.

“That can be regarded as pressure because if we look at what kind of disciplinary proceedings have been launched and against which judges, we will see malevolence, rather than coincidence,” he said.

The number of such proceedings increased significantly last year after a controversial government bill empowered the Armenian Ministry of Justice to demand disciplinary action against judges by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a state body overseeing Armenian courts.

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In a joint statement issued earlier this week, a dozen judges, among them members of the Court of Appeals, accused Justice Minister Karen Andreasyan of abusing that authority to try to bully judges known for their independence.

Aram Vartevanyan, a lawyer and parliament deputy from the main opposition Hayastan alliance, said on Thursday that the opposition minority in the National Assembly will ask the Constitutional Court to declare Andreasyan’s controversial prerogative unconstitutional.

Vartevanyan and other opposition lawmakers attending the parliament committee meeting were even more concerned about the effective suspension of a computerized system of random assignment of all cases to judges. The system using special software was designed to minimize government and law-enforcement officials’ influence on judicial acts.

Last summer, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) confiscated the computer carrying the software in what it called a criminal investigation into the integrity of the automated selection of judges. The NSS has not yet returned the software, allowing court chairpersons to continue to assign cases at will.

Opposition figures and lawyers say the NSS action was ordered by the Armenian government for the purpose of excluding independent-minded judges from politically sensitive criminal cases. They claim that the authorities are particularly keen to assign them to other judges who rarely reject arrest warrants sought by prosecutors.

Arshak Vartanyan, another Yerevan court judge, said the computerized case assignment is essential for judicial independence and criticized its de facto scrapping.

“Is a single criminal case much more important than the functioning of that computer software?” Vartanyan told lawmakers. “The SJC could have asked for time to replace the software or temporarily used other software. There are many tools to ensure the principle of randomness. Why has this not been done?”

The acting head of the SJC, Gagik Jhangiryan, refused to attend the parliamentary committee hearing and sent another judicial official instead. The official, Khachik Ghazaryan, defended the judicial watchdog empowered to nominate, sanction and fire judges.

  • “The Supreme Judicial Council has no other way of influencing that [NSS] investigation and preventing the confiscation,” Ghazaryan said. ”We have no other computer program to carry out [case assignment.]”

Jhangiryan was installed as a member of the SJC by the government-controlled parliament in January 2020. He became its acting chairman three months later.

Opposition politicians, lawyers and some media outlets have since regularly accused the controversial former prosecutor of helping Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan increase government influence on courts. He has denied the allegations.

Jhangiryan stated in August that Armenian courts must be purged of “people who have committed crimes against justice.” He himself had been at odds with human rights activists when serving Armenia’s chief military prosecutor from 1997-2006.

Pashinyan demanded a mandatory “vetting” of all Armenian judges in 2019, saying that many of them are linked to the country former rulers .. But his government subsequently agreed to refrain from such a purge at the urging of legal experts from the Council of Europe .

A government bill on judicial reforms enacted in 2020 calls instead for a “verification of the integrity” of judges which is carried out by a state anti-corruption body.

Andreasyan sought to revive the idea of judicial “vetting” after being appointed as justice minister in August. He stated later in 2021 that the vetting process has already begun thanks to the Jangiryan-led SJC.

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