Armenia is embarking on a sweeping structural reform of its law-enforcement system that is supposed to bring it into greater conformity with European standards. Under a government bill approved by parliament on February 26, Armenian prosecutors will be stripped of their most significant authority: to conduct pre-trial investigations involving arrests and interrogations of criminal suspects. That will now become the exclusive prerogative of the police and the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian, the main author of the bill, said earlier in February that implementation of the reform will start as early as this June. The functions of Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General will thus be essentially reduced to defending criminal charges in courts. The law-enforcement agency has until now handled the majority of criminal cases, giving it ample powers and corruption opportunities. Corruption usually takes the form of bribes paid by suspects for a cover-up of minor or major crimes — an entrenched practice dating back to the Soviet era.
Not surprisingly, the change has been vigorously resisted by the influential Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian whose relationship with Harutiunian has always been frosty. Tension between the two men reportedly rose in spring last year, forcing President Robert Kocharian to hold an emergency meeting of senior prosecutors and Justice Ministry officials. Kocharian eventually sided with Harutiunian, his longtime protégé.
It was a serious setback for Hovsepian, who has extensive business interests and a political patronage network. Meeting with officials from the Council of Europe on February 12, Hovsepian indicated his continuing objections to the bill in question. The chief prosecutor had earlier publicly accused police officers of incompetence, saying that his investigators routinely have to correct their blunders committed in the initial stages of criminal inquiries.
That Armenian prosecutors and officers of the former KGB are generally more competent than police detectives is a widely recognized fact. This raises the question of whether Armenia’s Police Service is able to shoulder the main burden of investigating and solving crimes from now on. According to Harutiunian, the police will be reinforced by many experienced investigators from the Office of the Prosecutor-General and its territorial divisions to be considerably downsized later this year.
Although still low by Western and ex-Soviet standards, Armenia’s official crime rate increased by 10 percent last year. Particularly alarming was a 36% surge in the number of murders reported by law-enforcement authorities. They have yet to solve the most high-profile of those crimes, including a September car bombing in Yerevan that killed a high-ranking tax official.
In all likelihood, the structural overhaul of the procuracy will not have any bearing on widespread mistreatment of suspects in custody. Extraction of “confessions” under duress remains commonplace in Armenia, despite its parliament’s ratification in 2002 of the European conventions on human rights and the prevention of torture. The Armenian government has done little to eliminate the illegal practice.
Justice Minister Harutiunian first unveiled plans for the re-distribution of law-enforcement powers in July 2006 as part of a broader reform of Armenia’s security apparatus and judicial system. Shortly afterwards, the Armenian parliament adopted a Judicial Code that envisages important changes in the structure and powers of the country’s notoriously subservient courts. Harutiunian and other senior officials said this would help to make them more independent of the government and law-enforcement bodies.
The Armenian judiciary had already undergone a radical structural reform over the past decade. Nevertheless, local courts still rarely acquit criminal suspects, investigate torture allegations, or make other decisions going against the government’s wishes. Corruption among Armenian judges is also a serious problem. Harutiunian, who plays a key role in the selection of judges, is believed to exert considerable undue influence on their rulings.
Far more important for judicial independence are some of the recently enacted amendments to Armenia’s constitution that significantly curb the Armenian president’s authority to appoint and dismiss virtually all judges. More specifically, the future presidents of the republic will not control, at least by law, a key body that makes mandatory recommendations for judicial appointments.
There are already some indications that Armenian judges feel emboldened by this change, even if it will take years to make a difference. Speaking at an annual meeting of state prosecutors on February 2, one of Prosecutor-General Hovsepian’s deputies, Gagik Jahangirian, lambasted courts for handing down “evidently lenient” verdicts in the course of 2006. “We are not going to put up with that,” he warned.
The remarks prompted an unusually sharp response from the Union of Judges of Armenia two weeks later. In a written statement, it said the judges “will not tolerate” threats to their independence and will continue to apply “stricter requirements” to prosecutors. “We advise [prosecutors] to switch from groundless accusations and pointless threats … to concrete actions that will raise the defense of state prosecution to a proper professional level,” read the statement.
Jahangirian, who previously worked as Armenia’s chief military prosecutor, was particularly furious with the effective acquittal on December 22 of three army soldiers accused of murdering two fellow conscripts. The three young men were unexpectedly set free by Armenia’s highest appeals court seven months after being sentenced to life imprisonment on what human rights groups consider to be trumped-up charges. It was the first known case of an Armenian court rebuffing military prosecutors.
(Aravot, February 27; Statement by the Union of Judges of Armenia, February 16; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 12; Haykakan Zhamanak, February 3)