The Yerevan Court of General Jurisdiction is currently ruling on the most controversial case since Armenian independence in 1991. The second president of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, has been detained for the last five months. He is charged for “overthrowing the constitutional system” by announcing a state of emergency and taking a bribe of around 3 million US dollars back in 2008.
In 2008, towards the end of the Kocharyan’s second term, his successor Serzh Sargsyan won the presidential elections, a wave of protests took place in the following weeks across Yerevan. During the clashes between law enforcement and protesters, 10 people died. After 10 years of public discussion surrounding responsibility for the deaths, and in the aftermath of the Velvet revolution, the former president and three other former high-ranked officials (including the CSTO Secretary General, Yuri Khachaturov) were charged.
On June 19, after four days of hearings, the current and former presidents of Nagorno Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan and Arkadi Ghukasyan asked the court to release Kocharyan (who was also the first President of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic) on bail, promising they would act as guarantors.
Following the announcement, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, wrote a post on Facebook encouraging the blocking of entries and exits to all Armenian courts beginning at 8:30am the next day. He described this action as the second step of the Armenian revolution. His supporters are justifying their approach with the belief that in the “new” revolutionary Armenia there is no place for the “old”, untrustworthy judiciary.
The announcement worsened Armenia’s already fractured politics,effectively dividing the nation into two distinct camps. But this time, the confused and distressed feedback is objectively justified. Imagine a paradoxical reality, where the Prime Minister, who was elected a year ago with the support of the nation, the hero of the Velvet revolution, now boycotting the judicial system with the development of another revolution. Boycotting, instead of reforming. The Director for Special Research at Freedom House, Nate Schenkkan, wrote on his personal Twitter that “The danger in post-revolutionary Armenia was always that Pashinyan, lacking the ability to transform the country quickly or sustainably, would fall back on the populism that got him into power. Here we are.”
The developments that follow are crucially important. Around two weeks ago Armenia marked the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that took the country by storm and resulted in he resignation of the former Government, led by Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, after ten years in power. The new government officially declared the last Saturday of April a national holiday, naming it ‘Citizens Day’. It should serve as a reminder of the victory of the Velvet Revolution. A victory, that is entitled to ordinary citizens.
The announcement of Prime Minister Pashinyan is greatly disturbing, though even more so are the great number of people who follow his direction without acknowledging the political interference taking place in the judicial system, failing to recognise its potentially grievous impact on the state’s development. For Armenia, a country that proclaimed the long sought establishment of the rule of law after decades of Soviet dictatorship, it is even more unsettling.
The constitutional practice of separation of powers and checks and balances originated in Ancient Rome, being reinforced by Montesquieu and Locke several centuries later. With all its pitfalls, it’s still one of the most efficient and crucial legal mechanisms in the protection of the rule of law.
The presumption of innocence is being violated by recent government action directly, led by the Armenian executive. Every person has a right to have a fair and free trial regardless of the crime they have been charged with committing. No vox populi can change this.
The time has come to end the tradition of solving issues or expressing discontent by hosting barbeques in the streets. This is a very dangerous precedent that will ruin the fragile democracy of Armenia. Whilst supporting the people’s right to protest, it is still unimaginable to create a strong and fair judiciary in the streets. Before assuming the office of the Prime Minister, Mr Pashinyan and his associates did not have many legitimate levers to implement judicial reform. Now they do, and propose a judiciary reform project, including the introduction of vetting and voluntary resignation of justices who know they cannot be objective in their legal rulings, whether in the application of transitional justice, or in the the interpretation of the Armenian Constitution. The judicial reforms are desperately needed, but it’s vital not to choose the wrong path.
“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” said William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. When that unlimited power is granted by the people, it is far more dangerous. It cannot be accepted that the people who fought hard against the dictatorship, corruption, oligarchy and the absence of the rule of law now empower it through calling for a“direct democracy”. If Armenia wishes to develop as a liberal democracy and reinforce the revolutionary commitments that it made, it has to call upon the government to implement institutional changes, accompanied by total accountability and transparency, to safeguard the judiciary of Armenia and its subsequent rule of law.
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