Sargis Harutyunyan

A judge who was controversially sacked this month launched a scathing
attack on Armenia's judicial system on Friday, saying that it is far
from being independent, objective and fair.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian service, Samvel Mnatsakanian
claimed that the local judiciary cannot be considered a separate
branch of government because many judges are primarily concerned with
not upsetting high-level state authorities, rather than enforcing laws.

"That is the main impediment to the judicial system's development
into a separate branch of government," he said. "You can't have a
judicial branch if judicial principles that are supposed to guide the
judge -- namely, law and his internal conviction -- have no connection
whatsoever with the judiciary."

Mnatsakanian took the bench in 1988 and worked at a district court in
Yerevan until being relieved of his duties by President Serzh Sarkisian
on July 11. Sarkisian made the decision upon the recommendation of
the Justice Council, a state body overseeing Armenian courts.

The council is headed by Arman Mkrtumian, chairman of the Court of
Cassation, the country's highest body of criminal and civil justice.

It has so far been reluctant to elaborate on the recommendation sent
to the president.

Mnatsakanian is believed to have been fired because of granting bail
to a criminal suspect contrary to prosecutors' wishes. The Armenian
Chamber of Advocates (ACA) says that he made that decision without
consulting with Mkrtumian and thus infuriated the latter.

The chairman of the national bar association, Ruben Sahakian,
and dozens of other lawyers staged an unprecedented demonstration
outside the Court of Cassation early this month to protest against
Mnatsakanian's impending sacking.

Mnatsakanian likewise described the Justice Council's action against
him as baseless. He said Mkrtumian personally initiated his ouster to
warn other judges against making major decisions without his consent.

Armenian courts have long been notorious for their lack of
independence, rarely handing down other rulings opposed by the
government and law-enforcement bodies. Hence, widespread skepticism
about repeated government pledges to reform the judiciary.

In what many independent lawyers regard as a serious blow to judicial
independence, the Justice Council backed in October 2007 the sacking
of another Yerevan judge who was behind one of the most sensational
acquittals in Armenia's history.

The judge, Pargev Ohanian, was fired by then President Robert Kocharian
three months after clearing the owner and deputy director of a coffee
packaging company of controversial fraud charges. Both men walked
free in the courtroom.

Armenia's Court of Appeals overturned their acquittal and sentenced
them six and two years in prison in November 2007. The Court of
Cassation subsequently upheld the ruling.

The businessmen, Gagik Hakobian and Aram Ghazarian, were arrested
in 2005 after publicly accusing senior Armenian customs officials
of corruption. One of those officials, Gagik Khachatrian, currently
heads the State Revenue Committee that manages the national tax and
customs services.