YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—Amid strong opposition objections, the Armenian parliament passed on Monday constitutional changes calling for the immediate dismissal of three of the nine members of the country’s Constitutional Court.
The amendments drafted by the ruling My Step bloc would also require the court to elect a new chairman. Hrayr Tovmasyan, the current chairman who has been at loggerheads with the Armenian government for the past year, would not have to resign from the court altogether.
Tovmasyan and six other judges have been under strong government pressure to step down, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accusing them of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding judicial reforms. Tovmasyan and opposition figures have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinyan is simply seeking to gain control over the Constitutional Court.
With all seven judges refusing to quit, the ruling political team decided in February to hold a referendum on its bid to oust them. The referendum slated for April 5 was subsequently postponed and then cancelled altogether because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, Pashinyan’s administration opted for a less radical solution to the “constitutional crisis” which would bar all high court judges from serving for more than 12 years.
Such term limits were already set by amendments to the Armenian constitution which took effect in April 2018. However, the country’s former leadership made sure that they do not apply to those judges who were installed prior to that. A clause in the amended constitution allowed them to retain their positions until reaching retirement age.
The changes approved by the government-controlled parliament would eliminate this clause. This would lead to the immediate resignation of three judges who had taken the bench in the mid-1990s. Two other Constitutional Court members would have to resign in 2022. Tovmasyan would have to quit as court chairman but would remain one of the nine justices.
Also in May, the government asked the Venice Commission for an advisory opinion on this solution.
In its opinion publicized on Monday, the Venice Commission largely backed the proposed formula. Still, it also called for a “transitional period which would allow for a gradual change in the composition of the Court in order to avoid any abrupt and immediate change endangering the independence of this institution.”
The commission said the Armenian authorities should also not rush to have Tovmasyan replaced by another court chairman.
The draft constitutional amendments unveiled by Pashinyan’s bloc on Friday do not envisage any transitional periods. The Venice Commission said it “regrets” this fact and believes that it is “not in line with the recommendations in this Opinion.”
Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan and senior pro-government lawmakers downplayed the commission’s objections, saying that the Strasbourg-based body agreed with the main thrust of the constitutional changes planned by the Armenian authorities. One of those lawmakers, Vahagn Hovakimyan, insisted that the changes will eventually result in a Constitutional Court “enjoying the public’s trust.”
The amendments were backed by 88 members of the 132-seat National Assembly. Virtually all of those deputies are affiliated with My Step.
The two opposition parties represented in the parliament boycotted the vote and a short debate that preceded it. One of them, the Prosperous Armenia Party, condemned the amendments as unconstitutional.
But it was not clear whether the Prosperous Armenia Party will team up with the Bright Armenia Party (LHK) to challenge them in the Constitutional Court.The two opposition parties have enough parliament seats to lodge such an appeal.
The Venice Commission noted that under Armenian law the court has to review and validate constitutional changes before they are passed in the second and final reading.
The government and the parliament’s pro-government majority seemed reluctant to seek such judgment. “I think there is a conflict of interest,” Badasyan said, referring to the Constitutional Court judges affected by the amendments.