YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—Opposition leaders accused the Armenian parliament of undermining judicial independence on Wednesday as it approved a government proposal to hire new judges who will deal only with corruption cases or pre-trial arrests of criminal suspects.
A relevant bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice calls for the selection of up to 21 such judges for Armenian courts of first instance. Three other new judges specializing in arrests or corruption-related offenses would be appointed to the Court of Appeals.
Government officials have said that the new judges would reduce the workload of courts increasingly overwhelmed by pending criminal and civil cases. According to Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan, they should also hand down “more objective” rulings on arrest warrants demanded by investigators.
In recent months Armenian judges have refused to allow law-enforcement bodies to arrest dozens of opposition leaders and members as well as other anti-government activists. Virtually all of those individuals are prosecuted in connection with angry protests sparked by the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan charged in December that Armenia’s judicial system has become part of a “pseudo-elite” which is trying to topple him after the disastrous war.
The National Assembly passed the government bill in the first reading by 83 votes to 17 with one abstention. Both opposition parties represented in the parliament rejected the bill, saying that the authorities should address instead the far more pressing security challenges facing Armenia and Karabakh.
“These issues are not addressed because the authorities have what they see as a much more important agenda: how to increase the number of judges approving arrest warrants,” said Naira Zohrabyan of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party.
Lilit Makunts, the parliamentary leader of Pashinyan’s My Step bloc, rejected the criticism. “I want to remind that the government takes on a weekly basis new measures to overcome consequences of the war,” she said. “We do not contribute to a better [security] environment by delivering fiery speeches here and trying to spread alarm among our citizens.”
Several other opposition groups denounced the government bill in stronger terms and rallied hundreds of supporters outside the parliament compound in Yerevan in a bid to scuttle its passage. Their senior members claimed that Pashinyan’s administration wants to install loyal judges who would duly allow the pre-trial arrests of their political opponents.
The protesters scuffled with riot police after blocking a major street adjacent to the compound. Several opposition activists were detained on the spot.
The crowd then marched to the main government building surrounded by several rows of riot police.