Armenia’s reformers struggle on | openDemocracy | #schoolshooting

The nomination of candidates for the constitutional court caused further controversies and disappointment among reform supporters. First, the government nominated Vahram Avetisyan, head of the civil law faculty at Yerevan State University. The nomination was apparently secured by the justice minister, Rustam Badasyan, a former student of Avetisyan.

Several civil society organisations and former political prisoners protested, warning of a possible conflict of interest because Avetisyan had not been vetted. Avetisyan’s father, David – the former chairman of the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation – had previously convicted a number of opposition activists who protested against the fraudulent presidential election in 2008.

In the end, Vahram Avetisyan withdrew his candidacy. The government’s proposed replacement, Edgar Shatiryan, also disappointed some activists. Shatiryan had previously been a member of the commission for officials’ ethical behaviour since 2015, monitoring possible conflicts of interest. Yet although many people believed Armenia’s previous government to be corrupt, Shatiryan had not spoken out about any significant transgressions.

The second nomination also caused controversy. After Article 213 was amended following President Sargsyan’s departure, his successor Armen Sargsyan (no relation) expressed a wish to have more powers, including the authority to directly appoint members of the constitutional court. Parliament rejected an attempt by the new president to place a judge, Arthur Vagharshyan, who he had already unsuccessfully put forward for another role in 2019, onto the court.

The third and final nomination – this time by the General Assembly of Judges – looked like a display of contempt for supporters of the 2018 revolution, including Nikol Pashinyan himself. The nominee, Yervand Khundkaryan, had been the chairman of the civil chamber of the court of cassation since 2010. Thirteen of his verdicts were overturned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and Armenia had been forced to pay €312,000 in compensation as a result.

In May 2019, when Pashinyan announced that all judges should be vetted, one of his explicit demands was that any judge whose verdicts had violated defendants’ rights, and were ultimately overturned by the ECHR, would have to resign voluntarily or be sacked. No voluntary resignations followed, and by 2020, Armenia’s Ministry of Justice abandoned the idea of vetting judges.

The parliamentary majority voted in favour of all three candidates on 15 September 2020, practically without debate. Just two or three members of the My Step fraction voted against each of the candidates; one of them, who had previously worked in the NGO sector, eventually resigned from her post.

This inconsistency with the government’s pre-election promises, as well as Pashinyan’s own explicit demand, intensified doubts about the political will to implement reforms. Several officials, including the justice minister, became embroiled in disputes with civil society representatives, former political prisoners, and other critics.

While these arguments rumbled on, the unreformed judiciary overturned the pre-trial detention of a number of former and acting officials suspected of felonies. In one obvious conflict of interest, the judiciary appointed judge Armenuhi Badiryan, the wife of former President Kocharyan’s defence attorney, to examine a lawsuit brought against the government by Kocharyan himself.

The post-war situation

Since the disastrous war with Azerbaijan last autumn, and the resulting political instability at home, Armenian civil society has found itself in an even more difficult situation.

For supporters of the revolution, disappointment has deepened. The government initially refused to consider snap elections as a means to solve the current post-war political crisis. In mid-March, the government relented, agreeing to hold elections in June, but without amending the current problematic electoral code, apparently after a deal with two smaller parliamentary alliances.

Some reformers have been asking for the country’s mixed proportional system to be changed to a simple proportional system, due to concerns that the current way of holding elections favours parties currently in parliament, as well as those who cultivate the support of oligarchs and local clans. On 1 April, the My Step alliance made yet another u-turn and voted to amend the electoral code.

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