Armenia's constitutional court has decided to seek advice from European judges on the country's most controversial case, that against former president Robert Kocharyan.
The constitutional court issued a statement on July 18 saying that they were seeking advice from two European judicial bodies, the European Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. The request was "aimed at receiving an advisory opinion over the cases on determining the compliance of Article 300.1 of the Criminal Code with the Constitution of Armenia, based on the applications of the Yerevan Court of General Jurisdiction and Robert Kocharyan."
This was an unexpected twist in Kocharyan's long-running legal saga. The former president, and bête noire of the current Armenian leadership, has been in and out of jail for the past year as he awaits trial on charges related to the violent breakup of March 2008 protests against fraudulent elections.
His last arrest was on June 25, after the constitutional court said it was considering a request from Kocharyan's legal team to rule on whether, under the constitution, the charges under which Kocharyan is being prosecuted are valid. That hearing was set for August 29.
Now, though, the court will wait for advice from Strasbourg and Venice. In its statement, it said it is also suspending the proceedings until it gets answers from the European courts.
"Of course we need the opinions of international organizations," said Alvina Gyulumyan, a member of constitutional court, in an interview with RFE/RL. "Who said any court can decide what to do without knowing all the pros and cons of the case?"
Kocharyan's team welcomed the decision. Hovhannes Khudoyan, one of Kocharyan's lawyers, said the decision was the result of ongoing pressure by the government and parliament on the courts, which the country's new authorities consider to be full of holdovers from the former regime. "That pressure now got a reaction," he told RFE/RL. "It's the right thing to do to avoid any doubt about the legality of a judicial act."
Pashinyan, who has been engaged in a heated conflict with the country's judicial system, was uncharacteristically quiet and, as of 24 hours after the court's announcement, had not publicly responded.
But in an interview with RFE/RL aired earlier in the week, Pashinyan renewed his attack on the constitutional court and its chairman, Hrayr Tovmasyan, calling them tools of the former authorities. And he reiterated his belief that Kocharyan is guilty. "All those who say that Robert Kocharyan is a political prisoner say that I have the right to bring the Armed Forces and tanks to Yerevan and crush any opposition demonstration. If I don't have the right to do that, then Robert Kocharyan cannot be a political prisoner."
A government ally, Vahe Grigoryan, was recently appointed to the constitutional court and during his confirmation in parliament said he was seeking to become its chairman, relying on a semantic argument. In a statement published in Armenian media on July 15, the Venice Commission strongly criticized that bid and the ruling party's apparent support of it: "It was disturbing that this statement by the judge has been applauded in parliament and there might be a risk of interference with the mandates of the sitting judges." The commission also took issue with another of Pashinyan's proposed strategies toward the judiciary, to "vet" all the current judges.
Meanwhile, on July 17 the Special Investigative Service, a body whose head reports to the prime minister, conducted a search of the office of the judge who in May let Kocharyan out on bail, eliciting a furious reaction from Pashinyan.
Kocharyan's lawyers said that the search was politically motivated, though the judge himself, Davit Grigoryan, was hesitant to make that claim. Grigoryan's lawyer, however, was less reticent: "From the judge's office computer, everything that mentioned the name Kocharyan has been confiscated," he told the news website Panorama.
The decision to send the case to Europe was hotly debated on Armenian social media. "The decision of ECHR could take years," wrote veteran journalist Armen Dulyan on Facebook. "Now, is this a good thing for Kocharyan or a bad thing?"