Armenia: Ombudsman Clashes With President

The government seeks to restrict the powers of Armenia’s human rights commissioner.

Armenia: Ombudsman Clashes With President

The government seeks to restrict the powers of Armenia’s human rights commissioner.

Only a year after her appointment, Armenia’s first human rights commissioner is in open confrontation with the authorities after delivering a series of stinging verdicts on legal abuses in the country.


“Back then [a year ago], everyone wondered if the ombudsman would be independent from the president, but now it looks like the president is trying to get independent from the ombudsman,” the ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian told IWPR.


When she was appointed in March 2004, following pressure from international organisations, there was widespread scepticism that the human rights ombudsman would have anything but a decorative role. But after a series of bitter disagreements, in which she has rebuked the government, President Kocharian petitioned the constitutional court last month to restrict the mandate of his ombudsman


Article 7 of the Law on the Human Rights Defender declared that the ombudsman had the right “to give recommendations to the court, guaranteeing the enforcement of citizens’ right to a fair trial, in accordance with the constitution of the republic of Armenia and international norms”.


However, in its May 6 verdict, the constitutional court declared this article unconstitutional and divested the ombudsman of any right to interfere with the judicial process.


Justice Minister David Harutunian, who testified in the constructional court on behalf of the president, argued that the ombudsman had effectively been given the right to undermine the independence of judges.


“We do not want this kind of interference to continue,” he told IWPR. “Small concessions undermine the independence of the judicial system. I believe this amendment will help the ombudsman find her rightful place in the system.”


But Alaverdian denied she had ever interfered with the administration of justice or taken any sides, saying she had simply tried to safeguard citizens against arbitrary judgments.


“The constitutional court decision was clearly biased,” she said. “My duty to issue recommendations to courts was limited to begin with. The president goes by the documentation and explanations provided by his justice minister. They simply want to keep the ombudsman in the dark about the shady dealings of the courts and judges.


“Instead of defending human rights, they are defending the judges from the human rights commissioner. The majority of complaints we receive are about court rulings and verdicts.”


When the ombudsman’s office published its human rights report for 2004 last month with strong criticism directed at law enforcement and courts, it came under strong attack from different parts of government and the legal system.


In one case, the ombudsman highlighted a human rights abuse when the mayor of Yerevan auctioned off a plot of land that was still on valid lease, and the tenant’s rights had not been terminated. The mayor’s office described the ombudsman’s actions as “unconstitutional”, and told her to stay away from property matters.


Alaverdian was similarly rebuffed by the legal department of the president’s office when she questioned the validity of government actions in a property dispute, when citizens’ property was forfeited and land was seized for the needs of two ambitious government construction programmes, the Northern Prospekt and Cascade in central Yerevan.


Stepan Safarian, an analyst with the Armenian Centre for Strategic and Ethnic Studies, believes that the Armenian authorities had expected their ombudsman to be more obedient and were now trying to make her so. “Whether the law was good or bad is beside the point. What matters is that Armenia got an ombudsman, who proceeded to insist on certain freedoms,” he said.


Safarian recalled how in April 2004, when an opposition demonstration was brutally dispersed by the police in central Yerevan, the ombudsman put the government in an awkward position by claiming its actions were unconstitutional and demanding an explanation from the president.


“The president appealed to the constitutional court because he did not like this new institution which could influence the routine, conveyor-belt administration of justice, making the outcome less predictable,” said Safarian.


Zhora Khachatrian, a legal adviser to Alaverdian, told IWPR the ombudsman only had an oversight role in court cases.


“We are not contesting judgments, we are simply raising issues, but they are saying this violated court independence,” said Khachatrian. “I’ve had at least one case when hearings were conducted and a verdict passed in the absence of the defendant, which is against all canons of judicial practice.”


Khachatrian said the government was now embarked on a course of restricting Alaverdian’s role as much as possible. Already she is no longer entitled to speak at government meetings. “From now on, you may only ask questions,” President Kocharian told her at a recent meeting.


“If this provision of the law is changed, then they are clearly attempting to turn the ombudsman and her office into some kind of compliant addendum to executive government,” said Alaverdian.


“All this goes to show that the powers accorded to the human rights ombudsman by law do not have substance,” said Khachatrian. “The ombudsman’s position is strictly formal, or decorative. And whenever the ombudsman speaks out, they claim it violates the constitution.”


The Armenian Centre for Strategic and National Studies conducted a poll in March which found that Alaverdian had gained popular support over the last year. A total of 22.6 per cent of the sample said they trusted the ombudsman the most as a human rights defender. By contrast the president, parliament, government and courts all received approval ratings of less than ten per cent.


“Restricted as the ombudsman is in her actions, she has won considerable authority and confidence at the grassroots level,” said Safarian.


Safarian said he was concerned that the government might be preparing evidence to discredit the ombudsman, so that this autumn, following constitutional reforms, Alaverdian can be replaced with a more compliant figure.


Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter with www.Armenianow.com


Armenia
Support our journalists