After a day-and-a-half of travel, I arrived in Armenia, a former Soviet country in which the American Bar Association has a Rule of Law Program for legal reform. (Armenia borders on Iran and Turkey and is about the size of Maryland.) I began work as a legal specialist with the Chamber of Advocates, the country’s bar association. Sixteen years after the Soviet Union’s breakup, the Republic of Armenia is striving to address the aftermath of its Soviet legacy.
As opposed to the British common law tradition, its legal system is based upon a civil code as are 80 percent of the world’s legal systems. To educate myself, I went with an interpreter to the lower court, the Court of First Instance. Having a lawyer for a civil trial is very rare. The plaintiff frequently appoints a “power of attorney” to another individual who “represents” him even though the plaintiff is present in the courtroom. As in U.S. courts, there is a good deal of waiting in the courtroom for the judge to go on the bench.
One trial involved a clouded title on an apartment. The defendant did not appear. In Armenia, the court is responsible for sending the complaint to the defendant and this defendant had been served three times. I thought this sufficient to get a default judgment against the defendant. However, the Judge opined that it was not clear if the plaintiff had the correct address. The address had come from the defendant’s passport, which must show her current address. The trial was re-set, but I thought that the plaintiff was unfairly delayed.
Most striking to an American attorney is that there is no court reporter or recording of the events. A clerk sits at a table next to the Judge’s bench and handwrites notes, which are the record of what transpired and become the court records. This documentation is therefore subject to the interpretation of the clerk. For example, for the above hearing, there was a one-page sheet of notes.
Another trial I attended was a criminal case, which turned out to be a highly-politicized case. As I climbed the stairs to the courtroom with my interpreter, the hallway was filled with people, a television camera and reporters. The courtroom was packed and elderly women were holding up signs concerning the case. Two defendants were charged criminally for incendiary statements and illegal possession of guns. The defendants were leaders in a veterans’ organization from the Karabakh war and were arrested in December 2006. They were held in jail until the July trial.
Opposition leaders to Armenia’s current government have stated in the press that this case was a governmental attempt to stifle dissent ahead of last May’s parliamentary elections and the presidential vote early next year. Disturbing to me was the statement made by the prosecutor in his bill of indictment that “irrespective of the fact that the defendant has not made direct calls for destroying the state authority by force, his statements are the logical continuation of the speech” made by the second defendant of the case. It appears from this statement that the first defendant did not say anything which could be construed as inciting overthrow of the government.
The “trial” resembled an appellate argument in which freedom of speech and association as well as the criminal code indictment were argued. The prosecutor said that both defendants must be sentenced to three and two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment, respectively, for publicly calling for a “violent overthrow of the government.” He insisted that their speeches at the gathering violated a corresponding article of Armenia’s Criminal Code.
The defense advocates cited to the European Court of Human Rights standards as well as the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia. The trial has no witnesses or evidence. The prosecutor’s and defendants’ arguments went on for hours. The prosecutor and the advocates read from prepared statements and the clerk took a few pages of notes.
Evidence had already been submitted on the legality of the gun held by one defendant. The first defendant’s advocate referred to documents which showed that the defendant had been rewarded with a weapon by the former Army Commander of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh for his service in the war and that the defendant has permission for carrying a weapon until May 21, 2008.
A newspaper in Yerevan reported the judgment on the case:
The Court of First Instance….of Yerevan, …found [the first defendant] guilty of carrying an illegal weapon and sentenced him to one and a half year of imprisonment by the bill of indictment passed on August 6….[and] not guilty of the charge, according to which he had made calls to conquer the state authorities by using violence.
[The second defendant] was found guilty of making calls to conquer the state authorities by using violence and was sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
Defense counsel announced at a press conference that the case would be appealed.
If freedom of speech is the quintessential American ideal, it is an evolving concept in former Soviet countries.
Barbara L. Edin is a Maryland attorney working overseas.