Gagik Jhangiryan

Armenia’s Chief Judicial Officer Refuses to Quit Over Audio Scandal

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By Naira Nalbandian and Karlen Aslanian

YEREVAN (Azatutyun) — Gagik Jhangiryan, the controversial acting head of Armenia’s judicial watchdog, has dismissed calls for his resignation sparked by leaked audio in which he appeared to blackmail his predecessor at loggerheads with the government.

“I have never been forced by any political force, alliance to tender resignation,” the former senior prosecutor told Armenian Public Television in an interview aired late on Thursday, June 23.

Ruben Vartazaryan, the previous chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), publicized on Monday a 14-minute audio clip which he secretly recorded during a dinner meeting with Jhangiryan in February 2021. The meeting took place two months before Vartazaryan was controversially suspended as SJC chairman amid rising tensions with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

In the recording full of profanities uttered by him, Jhangiryan can be heard seemingly warning Vartazaryan to resign or face criminal charges. He says that he has already blocked the opening of one or two criminal cases against the latter.

Speaking to the state-controlled TV channel, Jhangiryan claimed that he was not in a position to trigger or halt any criminal proceedings and simply tried to trick Vartazaryan into resigning.

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“Do you think that Mr. Vartazaryan would write a resignation letter if he knew that there will be cases against him and no guarantees that he will not be punished later on?” he said, adding that he simply used ‘psychological ploys.’”

Opposition and civic groups are bound to brush aside this explanation. They have said that Jhangiryan must be not only sacked but also prosecuted for what they see as blackmail and illegal interference in the work of law-enforcement agencies.

One of those agencies, the Investigative Committee, reportedly interrogated Vartazaryan on Thursday in a preliminary inquiry into the audio scandal. It is not clear whether the committee will also question Jhangiryan.

Despite the uproar, the SJC has refused to even start disciplinary proceedings against its acting chairman. The powerful body, which nominates Armenian judges and can also fire them, instead formally dismissed Vartazaryan as its nominal chairman and member on Thursday.

Jhangiryan also says in the leaked recording that a key motive behind his attempts to convince Vartazaryan to quit is to prevent Robert Kocharian, a former president and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s leading political foe, from returning to power.

Jhangiryan told Public Television, however, that he was solely motivated by the need for sweeping judicial reforms in Armenia. He claimed that implementation of such reforms has been his lifetime “mission.”

The 67-year-old was accused of grave human rights violations when he served as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor and deputy prosecutor-general in 1997-2006 and 2006-2008 respectively. Local human rights activists say that official cover-ups of crimes committed in the armed forces were the norm during his tenure.

“I know him as a bad military prosecutor who neglected people and covered up cases,” one such activist, Zhanna Aleksanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “Putting him at the helm of the judiciary was absurd.”

“He should not have been appointed to such a position,” said Aleksanian. “He has a very bad biography.”

Jhangiryan was appointed as a member of the SJC in January 2021 by the Armenian parliament controlled by Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. Lawmakers representing the party remained reluctant on Friday to comment on the audio scandal and the resulting calls for Jhangiryan’s resignation.

Opposition leaders have portrayed the recording as further proof of their claims that Western-backed “judicial reforms” declared by Pashinyan’s administration are in fact aimed at increasing government influence on Armenian courts.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the main opposition Hayastan alliance urged the US and European Union ambassadors in Yerevan to comment on the scandal and say whether they still support the stated reforms.

Taguhi Tovmasyan, the chairwoman of the Armenian parliament’s human rights committee affiliated with another opposition group, said on June 24 that she has sent the transcript of the recording to international organizations for the same purpose.

She said she asked them to answer the following question: “How can the Supreme Judicial Council interfere in any criminal case for political considerations in a country that has declared itself democratic?”

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