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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian

The Armenian parliament has adopted proposed changes to the constitution that would lead to the removal of Constitutional Court judges, potentially opening the door for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to exert more influence over the South Caucasian nation.

A total of 89 members of the National Assembly -- all affiliated with the ruling My Step bloc -- backed the draft constitutional amendments in the first and second readings on June 22.

The votes were boycotted by the two opposition parties represented in the 132-seat legislature -- the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and the Bright Armenia Party (LHK).

The draft changes, unveiled last week by the My Step bloc of Pashinian, would lead to the immediate dismissal of three of the nine Constitutional Court members.

It would also require the court to elect a new chairman.

The current court chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, and six other judges have been under strong government pressure to step down over the past year.

Pashinian has accused them of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding his judicial reforms. The seven judges have refused to quit.

12-Year Term Limit

Tovmasian and opposition figures dismissed Pashinian’s claims and in turn accused the prime minister of seeking to take control of the Constitutional Court.

Under the proposed amendments, the current and future Constitutional Court judges would be barred from serving more than 12 years.

The 12-year term limit was already included in the constitution which took effect in April 2018, but it didn’t apply to the judges already serving.

Fight Breaks Out In Armenian Parliament
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WATCH: Fight Breaks Out In Armenian Parliament

The draft changes approved by parliament would eliminate a clause in the amended constitution allowing these judges to retain their positions until reaching retirement age.

The move would trigger 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. Tovmasian would have to quit as court chairman but would remain one of the nine justices.

In an opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission largely backed the proposed changes to the constitution, but said it “regrets” that the proposed amendments do not provide for a transitional period that 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 Strasbourg-based Venice Commission also said that My Step should not rush to have Tovmasian replaced by another Constitutional Court chairman.

Svetlana Prokopyeva has described the case against her as an attempt to "assassinate freedom of speech" in Russia.

PSKOV, Russia -- The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), a human rights watchdog founded by Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife, Lebanese-British lawyer Amal Clooney, will be monitoring the high-profile trial of Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, who is accused of "justifying terrorism."

Prokopyeva’s lawyer Tatyana Martynova told RFE/RL on June 22 that the CFJ will be represented at the trial in the northwestern Russian city of Pskov by lawyer Maksim Kuznetsov, who will monitor the trial's legality.

Prokopyeva told RFE/RL that the monitoring "will play the role of a 'social searchlight' that will permit the evaluation of the case that we were hoping to get," adding that because of coronavirus restrictions many international organizations have been unable to attend the trial.

On June 16, when the trial resumed, Prokopyeva reiterated her stance, rejecting charges that she had "justified terrorism" by publishing an online commentary that linked a suicide bombing to the country's political climate.

Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service, was charged in connection with a commentary she wrote in November 2018, published by the Pskov affiliate of Ekho Moskvy radio. In the text, she discussed a bombing outside the Federal Security Service (FSB) offices in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.

The Russian media had reported that the suspected bomber, who died in the explosion, had posted statements on social media accusing the FSB of tampering with criminal cases.

In her commentary, Prokopyeva linked the teenager's statements to the political climate under President Vladimir Putin. She suggested that political activism in the country was severely restricted, leading people to despair.

Prokopyeva has described the case against her as an attempt to "assassinate freedom of speech" in Russia.

If found guilty, she faces up to seven years in prison.

"The charges against Svetlana are bogus and should be dropped, so that she and other Russian journalists can continue their efforts to address the important questions that Russians are contending with without fear of legal penalty," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch called Prokopyeva's prosecution "a violation of freedom of expression, but not just hers."

"It sends yet another chilling message that in Russia, raising uncomfortable questions can have severe repercussions -- a lesson the authorities have been giving the media for years," the New York-based rights group said.

The case has drawn criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and media-rights groups like Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the European Federation of Journalists.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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