Armenian law-enforcement authorities on December 27 brought criminal charges against Constitutional Court Chairman Hrayr Tovmasian in what he immediately denounced as a “political process” aimed at forcing his resignation.
Prosecutors charged Tovmasian with two counts of abuse of power immediately after he was questioned briefly in his office by the Special Investigative Service (SIS).
They allege that Tovmasian used his position to privatize an office in Yerevan while he was serving as justice minister in 2010-14 and that he forced state notaries subordinate to the Justice Ministry to rent out space linked to him at inflated prices.
“I was warned six months ago that one day I will be indicted for not taking X, Y, and Z steps," Tovmasian told journalists after his interrogation. “The X, Y, and Z steps are my resignation. So this accusation...has changed nothing in my life."
Tovmasian claimed the indictment is part of the pressure exerted on him and other Constitutional Court judges by Armenia's government.
The Special Investigative Service announced its decision to question Tovmasian on December 27 just hours after President Armen Sarkisian signed into law a controversial government bill giving Constitutional Court members financial incentives to resign before the end of their mandates.
The bill -- passed by the parliament earlier this month -- applies to seven of the court’s nine judges installed by previous governments.
It was drafted by the Armenian Justice Ministry in August soon after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian appeared to demand the resignations of those judges and Tovmasian in particular.
Pashinian has repeatedly accused them of maintaining ties to Armenia’s former leadership and impeding reforms that he says are aimed at creating a “truly independent judiciary.”
Pashinian's critics claim he is seeking to gain undue control over the courts.
“It’s no secret to any of you that in the last six and seven months the Constitutional Court has worked under unprecedented pressures,” Tovmasian said after his December 27 questioning. “Those pressures have involved not only insults, threats, and warnings about [what happened] today, but also concrete calls for violence.”
In late October, Armenia’s Investigative Committee claimed to have collected sufficient evidence that Tovmasian abused his powers when he served as justice minister.
The committee sent the case to the Special Investigative Service for further investigation.
Tovmasian’s lawyers categorically rejected the committee’s allegations at the time.
One of them, Amram Makinian, on December 27 described the accusations brought against the Constitutional Court chairman as “political persecution.”
Tovmasian expressed confidence that the six other high court judges will spurn early retirement. He described them as “heroes” fighting for judicial independence in the country.