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As the controversy over the legitimacy of the Armenian Constitutional Court continues, the Armenian Parliament has voted in favour of a bill to grant a generous retirement package to judges who choose to step down.
The bill, passed on Wednesday, offers judges who voluntarily step down before 31 January monthly compensation equivalent to their current wage until their term was foreseen to end.
Eight of the nine members of the court are serving based on rules established prior to the 2015 constitutional amendments, under which they can serve until the age of 70. Those appointed after the 2015 amendment, which came into force in April 2018, can only serve one six-year term.
The embattled chair of the court, Hrayr Tovmasyan, who has been accused by the government of having a conflict of interest in the trial of ex-President Robert Kocharyan as well as improper ties with the former ruling Republican Party, has the longest term remaining — until 2040.
The Ministry of Justice first drafted the bill in August 2019.
[Read more on OC Media: Armenian Parliament votes to strip powers from head of constitutional court]
The two opposition factions within parliament, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia, voted against the bill, labelling it ‘politically charged’.
There were heated exchanges during the first hearing of the bill on 10 December and on the final day of the vote.
The draft bill was presented to parliament by the Minister of Justice, Rustam Badalyan. During the first hearing, he said it had been greenlit by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters.
The Venice Commission expressed concern over the bill in October 2019, stating that early retirement was only acceptable if it remained strictly voluntary and if it did not hinder the effective functioning of the Constitutional Court.
Badasyan claimed that this initiative is not new in Armenia’s legal system. ‘The current law on the Constitutional Court foresees voluntary early retirement’, he said.
Retirement and taxes
When asked how much the scheme would cost taxpayers, Badasyan claimed that if all seven members resigned the cost would be roughly ֏630 million ($1.3 million).
‘In regards to spending taxpayers’ money on such “extravagances”, I can state that the public would be more intolerant if we didn’t make any changes to the judicial system and paid those judges every month anyway’, Badasyan said.
Opponents of the bill have claimed that it is an attempt to appoint judges more favourable to the government.
During the bill’s first hearing, Naira Zohrabyan, a member of the Prosperous Armenia faction, brought pictures of schools from poverty-stricken regions in Armenia to showcase that spending funds in this way would be inappropriate.
‘Our children will be studying in these schools, while these people will sit at home and receive a pension for years’, she said. ‘There is no doubt this is political.’
She added that she and her party did not ‘like’ Tovmasyan and other members of the Constitutional Court, ‘however, we want everything in our country to be done legally and not politically’.
Ani Samsonyan from the Bright Armenia faction claimed that the bill was being falsely presented by the government as a ‘rescue of the judicial system’.
‘Providing funds to send judges into retirement, judges that you and the people don’t like, at the expense of the people’s pockets is not acceptable for us’, she said. ‘Through this bill, you’re enacting a political agenda.’
Armenia’s speaker of parliament, Ararat Mirzoyan, said during the first hearing that they were not pursuing a ‘witch hunt’.
‘Everything will be done according to the law’, he said.
Gevorg Gorgisyan, an MP and secretary of the Bright Armenia faction stated that the changes were being pushed forward for newly appointed Constitutional Court member Vahe Grigoryan.
‘The only person not working in the Court is someone appointed by the My Step faction’, Gorgisyan said. ‘His job is to take part in Constitutional Court sessions, however, he still hasn’t. You [My Step] claim that he is going to heal the Constitutional Court. Then let him heal it and do his job.’
Gorgisyan also said that the government had made the Constitutional Court it’s number one priority — an approach out of step with public opinion.
‘How many people in the public are actually interested in the Court?’, he asked.
Vice-speaker Alen Simonyan stated that 71% of the electorate voted for them and told them to change ‘everything’.
‘And now [the public is] criticising us saying that we’re not changing everything fast enough’, he said. ‘But I can assure you that we will be changing everything and not only in this sphere [the judicial system], but everywhere.’
Simonyan condemned his colleagues for using parliament’s podium for ‘saying some pretty words with the hopes it will end up on YouTube.’
‘Today there’s a crisis in the Constitutional Court’, Simonyan stated. ‘We’re going to solve that crisis.’
Naira Zohrabyan also raised concerns about what would happen to members of the Constitutional Court if they do choose to retire.
‘If anyone agrees to this political deal, remember that they [the government] will not only have that money [the pensions] returned but will also subject you to a criminal investigation’, she said.
Members of the Constitutional Court enjoy immunity from prosecution while they sit on the court.
A ‘political’ atmosphere
So far, none of the members of the Constitutional Court has expressed a readiness to stand down. In an interview with Azatutyun on 13 August, Judge Alvina Gyulumyan called the bill ‘immoral’.
‘I am not ready to get paid with taxpayers’ money for not working’, Gyulumyan stated. ‘I could not look a person who gets paid ֏100 ($0.21) in the eyes and have them pay me for not working’.
In an interview with OC Media, Ara Ghazaryan, a lawyer and consultant for the Council of Europe, said that the bill does indeed have a political agenda.
‘The ruling regime has been criticising Tovmasyan relentlessly because he represents the former regime. The atmosphere they’ve created around the Constitutional Court makes this political.’
Ghazaryan claims there have never been issues with the pensions given to retired judges, as such, the My Step faction cannot claim this is being done as a monetary incentive.
‘I myself have worked on bills concerning pensions’, he said. ‘There have been instances when the state has provided special pension packets, but retracted from them years later. The ruling regime may do the same thing if one of the Constitutional Court members does decide to agree to an early retirement under these conditions.’
Ghazaryan said he did not believe members were likely to retire early under these circumstances.
‘This is an issue of prestige as well’, he said.
Ghazaryan said the bill was a message from the government to members of the Constitutional Court that if they did not take this chance to step down, then they will take more serious steps, including introducing judicial vetting.
‘Basically, the ruling regime is trying to get rid of any remnants of the former regime’, Ghazaryan said. ‘This is not fair, because one day all of us will be part of some former regime.’