Monday, Opposition Party Demands Pashinian’s Interrogation • Ruzanna Stepanian Armenia -- Prosperous Armenia Party's Naira Zohrabian speaks during a parliament session, February 11, 2020. A senior member of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) on Monday challenged Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to substantiate his allegations that it has illegally bought votes in various national and local elections. Naira Zohrabian said that law-enforcement authorities must summon Pashinian for questioning in connection with the allegations. The National Security Service (NSS) indicted BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian immediately after the Armenian parliament lifted his immunity from prosecution on June 16. The NSS claims that the wealthy businessman “created and led an organized group” that bought more than 17,000 votes for the BHK during parliamentary elections held in 2017. Tsarukian and his political allies reject the accusations as politically motivated. They say that Pashinian ordered the criminal proceedings in response to the BHK leader’s recent calls for the Armenian government’s resignation. Pashinian again denied that when he spoke in the parliament controlled by his My Step bloc on June 25. “Is the fact that Prosperous Armenia has earned votes with bribes a revelation?” he said. “Is that a revelation for anyone?” “I think that our law-enforcement system must also summon the prime minister and tell him to substantiate his information with facts,” countered Zohrabian. “We expect facts. If I had made such a statement they would have definitely summoned me the next day.” “If I had said, for example, that we have information that various oligarchs, who used to work for the former authorities, very actively worked for one or another candidate of My Step in the 2018 parliamentary elections I would have been immediately summoned for questioning and told to come up with facts,” she said. Pashinian’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, dismissed Zohrabian’s demand. “Yes, the prime minister said such a thing and he is not renouncing that statement,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “As for who should be interrogated, that is decided by the relevant [investigating] body.” In that regard, Gevorgian noted that a former Tsarukian associate, Abraham Manukian, was arrested late last week as part of the same inquiry. Zohrabian claimed that Manukian’s arrest is aimed at “extracting testimony” against Tsarukian. A spokesman for Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian denied that. On June 21, a Yerevan court refused to allow the NSS to arrest Tsarukian pending investigation. Prosecutors appealed against the ruling. Tsarukian’s party controls 25 seats in Armenia’s 132-member National Assembly, making it the country’s leading parliamentary opposition force. Parliament Majority Drafts More Amendments On Constitutional Court • Artak Khulian • Harry Tamrazian Armenia -- The main meeting room of the Constitutional Court, Yerevan, September 3, 2019. The National Assembly will debate and almost certainly pass on Tuesday further legal amendments designed to complete the controversial dismissal of three of the nine members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court. The parliament already approved on June 22 amendments to the Armenian constitution calling for their replacement by other judges to be appointed by its pro-government majority. The constitutional changes rejected by the opposition bar current and future Constitutional Court judges from serving more than 12 years. The 12-year term limit was already included in the constitution when it was previously amended in April 2018. But it did not apply to the judges already serving. A clause in the amended constitution allowed these judges to retain their positions until reaching retirement age. The latest amendments scrapped the clause, requiring the gradual resignation of seven members of the high court installed before April 2018. Three of them -- Alvina Gyulumian, Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian -- are to resign with immediate effect. The amendments also stipulate that Hrayr Tovmasian must quit as court chairman but remain a judge. Tovmasian and the three judges refused to step down, however. In a joint statement issued on Thursday, they argued that the authorities have not made similar changes to a separate law on the Constitutional Court which also exempts them from the 12-year term limit. Justice Minister Rustam Badasian dismissed their objections, saying that the constitution takes precedence over the law cited by them. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step was quick to draft relevant changes to the law in question. A senior My Step deputy, Vahagn Hovakimian, announced on Monday that they will be debated at an emergency session of the parliament scheduled for Tuesday. With Pashinian’s bloc controlling at least 88 of the 132 parliament seats, their swift passage is all but a forgone conclusion. The chief of the Constitutional Court staff, Edgar Ghazarian insisted on Saturday that Tovmasian and the three other judges technically continue to perform their duties. Tovmasian formally went on vacation late on Thursday, just hours before the constitutional changes came into force. Gyulumian said that she will temporarily head the court in his absence. Pashinian and parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan countered, however, that the court’s acting chairman is Ashot Khachatrian, the oldest of the six other judges. Mirzoyan made a point of meeting with Khachatrian on Saturday. Armenia - Constitutional Court Judge Alvina Gyulumian is interviewed by RFE/RL, Yerevan, November 15, 2019. In a weekend interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Gyulumian maintained that she remains a high court justice. She further stood by her claims that the 12-year term limit does not apply to her also because she most recently took the bench in 2014. Gyulumian, 64, had also served as a Constitutional Court judge from 1996-2003. She says that those years cannot be added to the length of her current tenure. Gyulumian again warned that she will challenge the legality of her ouster in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). She was a member of the Strasbourg-based court from 2003-2014. Tovmasian, Gyulumian and five other judges have been under strong government pressure to step down over the past year. Pashinian has accused them of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding his judicial reforms. Tovmasian and opposition figures have dismissed Pashinian’s claims and in turn accused the prime minister of seeking to take control of the Constitutional Court. In a written opinion made public on June 22, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe largely backed the amendments drafted by the Armenian authorities. But it criticized the authorities’ refusal to introduce a transitional period that would “allow for a gradual change in the composition of the court in order to avoid any abrupt and immediate change endangering the independence of this institution.” The Strasbourg-based body also said that the authorities should not rush to have Tovmasian replaced by another Constitutional Court chairman. In a letter to Tovmasian publicized by the Constitutional Court on Friday, Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio reiterated that the amendments are “not in line” with the commission’s recommendations. COVID-19 Outbreak In Armenian Parliament • Ruzanna Stepanian Armenia -- Deputies from the ruling My Step bloc at a parliament session in Yerevan, June 22, 2020. At least a dozen deputies of Armenia’s 132-member parliament have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus amid the continuing spread of the disease in the country. Vahe Enfiajian, a deputy parliament speaker, was the first to announce his positive test result on June 23. Several other deputies admitted testing positive in the following days. Enfiajian said he has a fever but not pneumonia when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service from his home on Saturday. He insisted that he does not know who might have infected him. “I always wore a mask in my office,” said the senior lawmaker affiliated with the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). Enfiajian said that several other BHK deputies have also tested positive for the virus and had to self-isolate. One of them, Arman Abovian, confirmed his infection on Saturday. Abovian, who is a senior BHK member, said he does not know whether the party’s top leader, Gagik Tsarukian, has also been affected by the outbreak. For the last two weeks BHK’s 25-strong parliamentary group has boycotted sessions of the National Assembly in protest against its pro-government majority’s June 16 decision to lift Tsarukian’s immunity from prosecution. The BHK leader is facing accusations of vote buying which he rejects as politically motivated. The parliamentary majority representing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc has also been hit by COVID-19 infections. One of its deputies, Hayk Gevorgian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that he had a coronavirus test on June 24 hours after showing some symptoms of the disease during a parliament session. He said he believe that he was infected inside the parliament building. According to Gevorgian, there were 7 confirmed coronavirus cases among My Step deputies as of Saturday. Another pro-government lawmaker, Karen Hambardzumian, admitted testing positive on Monday. “I am being examined in hospital,” he told the Armenpress news agency. The Bright Armenia Party, the third political group represented in the parliament, said at the weekend that there have been no infections among its deputies so far. Despite the outbreak, the parliament’s leadership reportedly decided on Monday to hold an emergency session of the parliament on Tuesday. It was not clear how it will try to prevent a further spread of the virus among deputies and parliament staffers. The deputies have had to wear masks on the parliament floor and in their offices for the past month. The parliament statutes do not allow them to attend sessions and vote via a video link. The Armenian health authorities have reported 25,127 coronavirus cases and at least 433 deaths caused by them so far. Armenians Urged To Stay At Home Armenia -- Medics clad in protective suits at Yerevan's Nork Hospital for Infectious Diseases treating coronavirus patients, June 5, 2020. Health Minister Arsen Torosian urged people to stop meeting relatives and friends, avoid going to restaurants and stay at home “as much as possible” on Sunday as official statistics showed no letup in coronavirus infections in Armenia. “We need a conscious lockdown, rather than an obligatory one,” Torosian wrote on his Facebook page. “We all must limit our nonessential contacts, movements, visits, events and meetings. We must stay at home as much as possible.” “Do not visit your loved ones unless there a vital need for that,” he said. Armenians, he said, must also minimize physical contact with neighbors, shun birthday parties and funerals, end sight-seeing day trips to the countryside and even refrain from evening strolls in streets or parks. “Stop visiting cafes and restaurants,” added the minister. “These are the only places where you can be without a mask and infect each other.” Armenia - A newly reopened cafe in downtown Yerevan, May 14, 2020. The latter point prompted strong criticism from the Armenian Association of Restaurants. “Amid a sharp decrease in sales, such a categorical appeal looks like a death verdict for public food service companies,” it said in a statement. The statement insisted that the vast majority of restaurants operate in “strict compliance” with safety and hygiene rules set by the Armenia government. It argued that restaurants flouting the rules are temporarily shut down by relevant authorities. Torosian appealed to the population as the Armenian Ministry of Health registered 736 new coronavirus cases. The ministry reported 482 single-day infections the following morning. The decrease was apparently due to a smaller number of coronavirus tests carried out on Sunday. According to the ministry, 7 more people died from COVID-19 in the past day, bringing Armenia’s official death toll to 433. The figure does not include the deaths of 143 other people who were also infected with the disease. The health authorities say that they were primarily caused by other, pre-existing conditions. Armenia -- People walk in the center of Yerevan, June 10, 2020. The total number of confirmed cases in the country of about 3 million reached 25,127 by Monday morning. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian acknowledged on Friday that Armenia now has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. Despite the continuing spread of the virus, Pashinian has repeatedly indicated that his government has no plans to impose another lockdown and will continue instead to put the emphasis on getting more Armenians to practice social distancing and wear face masks in public. The premier said on Friday that the government is planning a further toughening of sanctions against people not complying with these rules. The government issued stay-at-home orders and shut down schools, universities and most nonessential businesses at the start of the coronavirus crisis in late March. But it began easing those restrictions already in mid-April and all but ended the lockdown by the beginning of May. The number of coronavirus cases has risen sharply since then. Critics say that the lockdown was lifted too soon. Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2020 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.