In the past fifteen years, Armenia and the EU have developed an increasingly close relationship. This extends beyond co-operation, encompassing significant economic integration and greater political cooperation, from the EU-Armenia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (1999) to the inclusion in the European Neighbourhood Policy (2004) and the Eastern Partnership (2009). However, 2013 saw President Serzh Sargsyan choose to have Armenia accede to the Moscow-led Customs Union and refuse to sign the Association Agreement with the EU.
This abrupt political U-turn, clearly imposed by Moscow, interrupted a number of promising legislative processes in the field of human rights. It also created uncertainty among civil society about the future of democratic processes. Indeed, the practice of restricting and intimidating civil society in the member states of the Customs Union - Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan - is a well-known state policy.
In January 2015, Armenia suddenly decided to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Armenian human rights NGOs had hoped that the Association Agreement with the EU would provide the mechanisms, leverage and tools to curb corruption and oligarchic rule by strengthening democratic governance along with institutions for protecting human rights. However, these hopes rapidly evaporated. Laws on gender equality and LGBT rights have been thrown into the oubliettes; access to foreign funding by Armenian NGOs is likely to be restricted under a law similar to the Russian one on ‘foreign agents’. In addition, peaceful demonstrations have been violently dispersed by police and citizens in custody have been beaten.
‘Eurasian values,’ as defined by Moscow, have quickly affected the work of the Armenian human rights activists. They have been slandered in the media and even threatened with violence. Defending LGBT rights is now suddenly perceived as a betrayal of ‘Armenian values’ and as collaboration with Western powers in order to destroy the family, the cornerstone of the Armenian nation.
A major area of concern is the independence of the judiciary. Domestic and international human rights NGOs were expecting some progress in aligning with the values promoted by the EU. There is a general consensus that one of the systemic problems in the country is the lack of separation between the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Consequently, the judiciary presents a major obstacle to sustainable progress in human rights.
Armenian society holds little trust in the judiciary, which is permeated with corruption and remains largely under executive control. By the end of 2013, 53 per cent of Armenian citizens said they mistrusted the justice system, compared with only 15 per cent that did. The functioning of the justice system remains one of the weakest links of Armenian governance. Police make arbitrary arrests without warrants, beat detainees during arrest and interrogation and use violence to extract confessions.
There have been at least four recent documents addressing the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial:
- The latest Report of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office of Armenia
- The repeated statements by the Armenian Human Rights NGOs at the OSCE/ODIHR
- A Report of the American Bar Association
- The Opinion of the Venice Commission on the ‘Draft Law on Introducing Amendments and Addenda to the Judicial Code of Armenia’
The independence of the judges is non-existent. The President retains the discretionary power to accept or reject nominations by the Justice Council for judicial appointment or advancement, and need not specify any reasons.
Corruption is endemic. In 2013, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Armenia published an Ad-hoc Report on the right to a fair trial. On the basis of data provided by judges who admitted to have participated in the corruption system, under cover of anonymity, the report describes the corruption mechanisms, the methods through which pressure is brought to bear on judges, the double standards used by the Cassation Court and the Justice Council. The report also reveals the amounts of bribes given to judges and how they change hands.
According to the Report, the cost of a bribe to buy a judgement was in the range of $500 to $10,000 for the Courts of first instance, between $2000 to $15,000 in the Court of Appeals and anything from $10,000 to $50,000 for the Court of Cassation.
Incentives to guarantee the independence of the judges and fair trials may have come from the EU but they will certainly not come from the Eurasian Economic Union.