Meeting Armenians in Armenia

By Collins T. Fitzpatrick,
Circuit Executive
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit

 

I am indebted to the Armenian Bar Association and Federal Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan for making my trip to Yerevan possible.  I had a two day scheduled meeting of a nongovernmental organization  in Prague so I thought that while I was in “the neighborhood,” I would see if there was interest in having me speak to Armenian lawyers and judges as I have done in other foreign countries as well as in America.

Judge Der-Yeghiayan arranged for me to be hosted by Armine and Raffi Hovannisian who were wonderful hosts.  Armine picked me up at the airport at 1 a.m. and we sat around the kitchen with Raffi  until 3 in the morning having a wonderful conversation.  I mention them as they are not only both American lawyers, but Raffi was the first President of the Armenian Bar Association and the first foreign minister of Armenia.   I was only in Armenia for two days, but I got to see and do a lot. On the first day I had a lengthy conversation with Minister of Justice Davit Harutyunyan and several members of his staff about the backlog of cases in the courts and the problems of corruption.  I mentioned that corruption is in many countries and I pointed out that In Chicago, we had about 30 state judges as well as lawyers and court officials who were convicted of corruption.   I gave some ideas on how to deal with backlog and pointed out that the most effective way to deal with case backlog is to take the time to investigate applicants before appointing them to the bench. I subsequently forwarded to them materials which we utilize in selecting judges and considering their reappointment.  I also provided the name of a federal judge who has vast experience as a state and federal trial judge and who is willing to travel to Armenia to help them.

The following day I spoke to about 40 soon to be judges and prosecutors at the Academy of Justice.  I spoke on the need for judges and prosecutors to be independent in making decisions, how you foster that independence, and how you preserve that independence. We talked about the importance of ruling on the basis of the law and the evidence. They wondered about what a judge should do when the lawful decision favored only one person as opposed to the 1500 on the other side.  I explained that judges needed to follow the law. I gave as an example a recent decision by a Chicago federal judge that went against the municipal authorities and a large and influential part of the establishment to stop construction of a museum on land that was dedicated to being open park space.  I mentioned that there may come a time when they as judges and prosecutors need to not enforce a law that is unjust. I gave as an example the Nazi laws discriminating against Jews. I said judges and prosecutors need to be willing to resign if the law is unjust. I mentioned that I have friends who are Turkish prosecutors and judges who have been jailed for being independent. From the questions that I received, I connected with the audience even though I was using a translator.

It was not all work as Armine took me to see the first century temple at Garni and the monastery at Geghard with its 12th century chapel.  I also visited the Cascades, an outstanding modern art museum with outside fountain galleries.  Armine also showed me around Orran which she established to provide homeless and other poor children a place to come after school and for poor seniors to get a hot meal.  Orran has expanded and now has two locations.  Armine took me on a walking tour from the Ministry of Justice through Republic Square to the Opera House where her husband Raffi had a 15 day hunger strike to protest government corruption. That first evening we went to the Ararat Golf Club (the first golf course in Armenia) for dinner with “another couple.”   It was an Armenian version of the Gospel story of the loaves and fishes as the couple expanded to about 30 persons for a wonderful dinner. It was much like our American Thanksgiving with family and friends and lots of food, drink, music, singing, and wonderful toasts.

The next day I went to the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin where I visited Mayr Tachar, the main cathedral, and the newest church, Holy Archangels, and the beautiful grounds. After that we went to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, a very sobering and reflective place, much like our Holocaust Museum in Washington.  I am not the first person to think that if the world knew more about the Armenian genocide when it happened, maybe more persons would have resisted the Nazi genocide.  The lawyer came out in me when I suggested to Armine and Raffi that the museum should post some of the original Turkish government documents trying to justify the Armenian removal and the eyewitness accounts of third party observers of the atrocities committed on the Armenian people.  Having seen the movie The Promise (which I highly recommend) was helpful in following the detailed presentation in the Museum.

That night, again thanks to my hosts, I was invited to the Independence Day Party at the American Embassy.  Armine and Raffi seem to know everyone from high level government officials to the wait staff.  They introduced me to the Director of the Genocide Museum and his wife who designed it.  So it was an opportunity for me to go right to the top with my suggestions for the museum.

I also took the occasion to talk to Deborah Grieser, the Director of the Agency for International Development at the American Embassy, to tell her about my conversation with Minister of Justice Davit Harutyunyan and his interest in getting help to analyze and offer solutions to the growing backlog problem in the courts as well as the issues of corruption.

After the band’s last song, and the fireworks, I thought that we were headed back to the Hovannisians’ home as Raffi and I had 4:30 am flights.  They had a better plan to join others at Dolmama Restaurant for desserts and more wine toasting with friends and new acquaintances who happened to be in the restaurant. Back to the house at 1, quick packing, and a 20 minute nap before Raffi and I leave for the airport at 2 a.m.

Many people there and here have asked me what I liked best from my quick trip to Armenia.  The answer is easy; it is the people. We all know people who served in the Peace Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Teach for America or similar programs.  We have had older children who went on service projects for two week periods here or abroad. But it all pales in comparison to the Hovannisians who went to Armenia when Armenia got its independence more than 25 years ago with Armine helping the poor and Raffi trying to bring integrity to the Armenian government.  They have given up much to help others and it was a privilege to get to know them and the other Armenians whom I met.

Attached photo is of Armine and Raffi Hovanisian with Ambassador Richard Mills, Jr. and Collins T. Fitzpatrick.

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