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Bar Fight in Armenia

A new barristers’ association is riven with disputes even before it gets off the ground.

The start of Armenia’s new Bar Chamber, which it was hoped would improve the professional standing of lawyers in the country, has been delayed by a bitter fight over the election of a chairman, which has ended up in court.

The only winners, say independent lawyers, are officials who want to keep exerting political control over the judiciary.

This week, two rival candidates to head the new body are in court, after the losing candidate alleged that the ballot was rigged.

A new law on the bar, effective as of February 1, instituted the Bar Chamber so that Armenian lawyers would operate under one umbrella body, instead of the two previous organisations.

David Harutiunian, Armenian justice minister, hailed the new Bar Act as a “sound piece of legislation that will help shape Armenia’s justice system”.

“By creating a new, consolidated Bar Chamber, we are establishing a powerful body that will dictate legal ethnics and regulate other issues as yet not covered by any laws or codes,” the minister told IWPR. “The stronger the Bar, the stronger the government, and the better the justice system overall,” he added.

However, the March 19-20 inaugural meeting of the new chamber – at which its leadership was to be elected – ended in an acrimonious dispute, which left the nascent institution unable to start work.

The election for the chairmanship was won by a margin of seven votes by Enok Azarian, 40, deputy chairman of the Union of Barristers of Armenia. Azarian is a doctor of law who says he wants to found a new law school in Armenia.

However, the result is being contested by the losing candidate, Ruben Saakian, a well-known lawyer. Azarian cannot take up his post until the court decides on a verdict.

“This was just another case of rigged elections in Armenia,” complained Saakian. He and his supporters claim there were numerous irregularities in the way the vote was conducted – for example, that lawyers who had not taken a re-qualifying exam were allowed to vote and that voting was suspended for one hour and, as a result, many participants were unable to vote.

The Yerevan office of the American Bar Association, ABA/CEELI, which organised the meeting and also observed the voting, said that the vote had been fair and an audit commission had only noted a few minor irregularities that “did not affect the voting results”.

Karen Kendrick, Armenian country director of ABA/CEELI, said the process was “messy but democratic” and said there had been no political intervention in the vote.

Kendrick characterised the row as an unfortunate beginning for a much-needed organisation. She told IWPR, “Advocates have been a dispirited group in Armenia and haven’t felt they have had the respect of other members of the judiciary, like judges and prosecutors. They see this as an opportunity to raise the reputation of their profession.”

Well-known lawyer Tigran Janoyan insisted that Saakian had not been cheated of victory for some political reason. “The ballot was open, fair and transparent,” he told IWPR. “It is unacceptable when some people try to discredit the Bar institution for their own personal ends. As it is, we have enough problems trying to ensure that barristers are treated with due respect.”

Although the new legislation has been generally welcomed, another area of controversy is a new provision in the law establishing the institution of “public defender”, without clarifying how it should be funded. Public defenders will act as defence lawyers paid for by the state. The law provides for a certain number to be elected from among practicing lawyers, but fails to specify how much funding the state is willing to allocate to support them.

“Our cash-strapped government wants more democracy than it can afford,” said Janoyan. “They probably expect the Bar to pay for public defenders, and if that fails, then the Bar will be held responsible.”

Janoyan said that there is a tradition of state lawyers in Armenia creating more problems for their clients than they help solve. “They will always do the state’s bidding,” he said. “A state lawyer is assigned in the early days of an investigation. That’s when charges are trumped up and people are forced into making confessions.”

According to Janoyan, some 70 per cent of Armenian lawyers are in cahoots with judges and prosecutors. He even alleges that lawyers have ties to organised crime.

“Justice is anything but ‘just’ these days,” he said. “Barristers are not magicians, but when they sell out to the judicial system it confuses citizens and makes them defenceless.”

Minister of justice Harutunian said lack of funds should not be an obstacle to the institution of public defenders, “In theory, public defenders should be sponsored by the state. Whilst our country is not wealthy enough to afford a good institution [public defenders], it cannot afford to have a bad one either.

“Funding has been increasing year on year. Things are getting better.”

Fears are being expressed that the quarrel in the new chamber is damaging the reputation of Armenian lawyers just as they are trying to become more independent. Tigran Ter Esayan, a former president of the International Bar Association, described the ongoing internal strife within the Bar Chamber as “a disgrace”, saying it gives Armenian lawyers a “bad name”.

“What’s going on is the opposite of consolidation, and that’s exactly what the government wants,” he told IWPR. “This cannot be good and the split will only get worse.”

Mikael Danielian, chairman of Armenia’s Helsinki Association, a leading human rights group, also took part in the vote and expressed disappointment at the way it ended.

“If these are the people who should be defending the letter of the law, how can we trust them?” he asked. Danielian expressed sympathy for the winner, Azarian, saying, “He is young and he has behaved decently throughout all this.”

“Seeing all this happening, how can anyone trust a lawyer any more?” said Nino Sarkisian, the mother of a soldier killed while doing military service. “These people are going out of their way to put each other down. How are they going to defend us in court?”

Zhanna Alexanian is a correspondent with in Yerevan.

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