European Bodies Weigh in On High Court Standoff in Armenia

By Asbarez | Tuesday, 04 February 2020

Armenia's embattled Constitutional Court chairman HJrayr Tovmasyan

Armenia’s embattled Constitutional Court chairman HJrayr Tovmasyan

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, and the Venice Commission urged restraint in the months-long standoff between Armenia’s government and the Constitutional Court, the country’s high court.

In an effort to advance judicial reforms, the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his My Step party have been publicly pressuring Hrayr Tovmasyan, the chairman of the Constitutional Court to step down, claiming that the Armenian parliament had illegitimately approved his nomination to the post in February 2018, two months before Pashinyan led a popular uprising that toppled the former regime.

In October, the current parliament passed legislation to remove Tovmasyan from his post, in a motion introduced by the majority My Step bloc. In December, Tovmasyan was indicted on charges unrelated to the high court standoff. Pashinyan directly addressed the issue at a press briefing late last month claiming that upon becoming prime minister he was approached by Tovmasyan at an Armenia Fund executive meeting in May 2018, who, according to Pashinyan, pledged his allegiance to the newly-minted leader by gifting him an expensive pen. During the same briefing Pashinyan alleged that Tovmasyan was part of what he called a “hybrid” effort to overthrow his government.

On Friday, PACE co-rapporteurs for the monitoring of Armenia, Andrej Šircelj and Kimmo Kiljunen issued a statement specifically addressing the Constitutional Court fracas and urging all political players to exercise restraint and refrain from making statement that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary.

“We are very concerned by the high level of tension between two State institutions in Armenia, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Presidency of the Constitutional Court,” said the PACE co-rapporteurs.

“Checks and balances are essential in any democratic system. This implies that all institutional powers must act according to the rule of law, and respect it in their deeds and words, including with regard to the principle of the presumption of innocence. If they fail to interact according to these principles, they undermine and damage each other. We are therefore worried about the long-term damage these tensions, that have reached an unprecedented level, could inflict on the judiciary as a whole, in which trust is already very low,” they added.

The PACE co-rapporteurs reminded the Armenian government that the Venice Commission had underlined that any early retirement must be voluntary.

“So far, the Government and the Parliament have respected legal procedures to resolve the situation. Moreover, the authorities have requested the opinion of the Venice Commission on the mechanism for early retirement of judges of the Constitutional Court. According to European standards, the Venice Commission underlined that early retirements should be strictly voluntarily and that this principle needs to be observed. As co-rapporteurs, we will closely monitor that the Armenian authorities continue to act in this way, even if the objective of this mechanism, to uphold the spirit of the constitutional amendments of 2015, seems valid,” the PACE co-rapporteurs stressed.

“We have already emphasized the need for political players to refrain from actions and statements that could be perceived as exerting pressure on the judiciary. In addition, we call on all parties to lower tension,” said the co-rapporteurs.

“Finally, these tensions should not overshadow the need for reforms in Armenia, whether it be those in preparation or those that have already been launched in many areas of interest for the Council of Europe,” they concluded.

Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio

Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio

In response to the PACE co-rapporteurs, the president of the Venice Commission Gianni Buquicchio issued his own statement on Saturday urging a de-escalation of the issue and called on the parties to achieve a resolution in an atmosphere of restraint. He also reiterated the commission’s position on voluntary retirement of the judges.

“Following my statement of 29 October 2019, I remain preoccupied about the open conflict involving the Constitutional Court of Armenia. I share the concerns of the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in this respect,” said Buquicchio.

“I would like to recall the recommendations made in the opinion of the Venice Commission adopted in October 2019 that any early retirement scheme at the Constitutional Court has to remain truly voluntary, exclude any undue political or personal pressure on the judges concerned and must be designed not to influence the outcome of pending cases,” added the Venice Commission president.

“Recent public statements and acts do not meet these criteria and will not be conducive to de-escalating the situation,” said Buquicchio. “Democratic culture and maturity require institutional restraint, good faith and mutual respect between State institutions.”

“I call again on all sides to exercise restraint and to de-escalate this worrying situation in order to ensure the normal operation of the constitution of Armenia,” concluded Buquicchio.