Armenian parliament makes moves to resolve Constitutional Court crisis – without a referendum
The National Assembly of Armenia has adopted draft amendments to the Constitution earlier today on June 22, according to which judges of the Constitutional Court who have worked for a twelve-year term must resign. In addition, a new head of the court will be elected.
Both opposition factions refused to attend the parliamentary meeting, but the bill was unanimously approved by MPs of the ruling My Step bloc, who have enough votes to unilaterally pass the bill.
Earlier, a nationwide referendum on the constitutional amendments had been scheduled, and by which the ruling party sought to have the chairman and six judges of the Constitutional Court, who were elected under the previous government, resign.
The current government, which came to power after the velvet revolution of 2018, explained the need for a referendum by a crisis in the entire judicial system. The judges of the Constitutional Court ‘from the past government’, and in particular, its chairman, were declared incapable of “administering justice” in post-revolutionary Armenia. The referendum was scheduled for April 5, but did not take place due to the coronavirus epidemic.
The parliamentary opposition opposed the referendum t the time, claiming the approach was legally groundless. The Prosperous Armenia party even refused to participate in the referendum itself.
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On June 19, the ruling My Step faction submitted draft amendments to the Constitution to parliament.
The bill proposed to terminate the powers of judges who have held their office for more than 12 years: Alvina Gyulumyan, Felix Tokhyan and Hrant Nazaryan.
Judges who have been in positions for less than 12 years will be able to work until the end of their term.
The bill also called for the termination of the powers of chairman of the Constitutional Court, Hrayr Tovmasyan, and to elect a new one. Tovmasyan, in this case, would continue to remain a judge on the of the court.
Under current legislation, the chairman and members of the Constitutional Court can hold office until their 65th birthday.
Both opposition factions refused to participate in the parliamentary meeting.
Representatives of Bright Armenia said the authorities are inconsistent with their approach to the issue. MP Taron Simonyan stated:
“If I am not mistaken, lawyers from My Step, from the rostrum, said that we (the opposition) were wrong and this issue could be resolved solely by referendum, because the Constitution does not allow parliament to decide on this issue. Now it turns out that it can.”
Simonyan told reporters that the faction members got acquainted with the text of the bill not through the official website of the parliament, but through media publications. In his opinion, “such a rush indicates not very honest behavior”, which negatively affects the legal authority of the whole country.
Prosperous Armenia faction MP Naira Zohrabyan says the issue of constitutional amendments has been accelerated in connection with ‘the political repressions that have begun in the country.’
She explained her decision not to participate in the parliamentary session by the fact that the government allocated only a couple of hours to discuss the matter. According to her, during this time it is impossible to understand what constitutional changes are being prepared in the country.
An MP from the same faction, Mikael Melkumyan, recalled the conclusion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe on this issue:
“The Venice Commission said that it is imperative to ensure the tenure of judges, which is a prerequisite for the independence of the judiciary. What are we doing? [It seems] we do not provide any independence, we want to get a puppet judicial system.”
The Armenian authorities themselves appealed to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe with a request to express their opinion on the upcoming amendments. The opinion of European experts was presented on June 22.
They confirmed the legitimacy of the process of amending the Constitution, the abolition of the referendum and the replacement of judges with legitimate ones, but “expressed regret” in connection with the refusal of the transitional period by the Armenian authorities.
In this regard, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Maria Peychinovich Burich, stated:
“The Venice Commission proposed that judges who have not yet served 12 years in office remain. Judges who have been in office for 12 years should take advantage of the new transitional period, the duration of which will be determined by the Armenian authorities.
“I urge the authorities to be guided by the recommendations of the Venice Commission, gradually implementing the relevant provisions of the 2015 Constitution in accordance with European standards.”
Ruling party reaction
The head of the ruling parliamentary bloc My Step Lilit Makunts said that the Venice Commission is an advisory body, therefore, its recommendations are not binding:
“The commission noted that the country’s authorities, at their discretion, should determine the timing of the transition period in the process of judicial reform. We say that this period has been going on for a year and a half, and so as not to generate tension, we did not extend it.”
Minister of Justice Rustam Badasyan believes that the old judges of the Constitutional Court should be replaced, and not wait until their powers expire under the old Constitution. He says the experts of the Venice Commission recognize that the goal of the current authorities – to equalize the old and new judges in terms of office – is legitimate.