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23 September 2005

ARMENIA: New wave of Jehovah's Witness sentences begins

Shaliko Sarkissian became the first Jehovah's Witness who abandoned alternative service because it remains under defence ministry control to be punished. On 15 September a court in the capital Yerevan imprisoned him for two years and eight months for "desertion". The trial of another, Garik Bekjanyan, is imminent, while a further dozen await trial. An OSCE official expressed alarm to Forum 18 at the "growing number" of Jehovah's Witness prisoners. The Council of Europe and the OSCE have condemned Armenia's failure to introduce a genuine civilian alternative to military service. But Sedrak Sedrakyan of the Defence Ministry's legal department rejects all complaints, insisting that his ministry has "no control" over the alternative service. He dismisses all concerns about the Jehovah's Witnesses. "We believe all this has been organised to make a show," he told Forum 18.

5 September 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist conscript now imprisoned

Military leaders in the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus have successfully appealed to the courts for Gagik Mirzoyan - handed a suspended sentence in July for refusing to handle weapons or swear the military oath on grounds of religious faith – to be sent to prison. On 5 September Hadrut district court imprisoned the embattled Baptist conscript for one year. The court told Mirzoyan that if he declared then and there he would swear the oath it would free him and send him back to his unit. "Gagik responded that he couldn't do so as the Bible doesn't allow it," a fellow Baptist told Forum 18 News Service. "He was sentenced and police took him away immediately." Two Jehovah's Witnesses have also been sentenced to prison in Nagorno-Karabakh this year for refusing compulsory military service because of their religious convictions.

13 July 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Suspended sentence for embattled Baptist conscript

Embattled Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan received a two-year sentence, suspended for one year, at his 7 July trial. He had refused to swear the military oath or serve with weapons since being called up into the army of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. "This means he won't have to serve any time in prison - if of course he does nothing wrong over the next year," Albert Voskanyan of the local Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18 News Service. Beaten twice since his conscription last December, Mirzoyan spent 10 days in prison for preaching his faith in his army unit. "After a lot of pressure, Gagik was finally happy because he could see his brothers and sisters from the church at his trial," a Baptist told Forum 18.

7 July 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Illegally deported Armenian JW conscientious objector jailed, no progress in Karabakh Baptist case

An Armenian citizen, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Armen Grigoryan, who was illegally deported from Armenia to the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been jailed in Karabakh for two years and sent back to Armenia to serve the sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Armen Grigoryan joins eleven other Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors who are currently jailed in Armenia, despite the country's broken promise to the Council of Europe that it would free all these prisoners of conscience and introduce civilian alternative service by January 2004. In another Nagorno-Karabakh case, that of Baptist conscientious objector Gagik Mirzoyan - a Karabakh native who has already spent 10 days in a military prison – the Nagorno-Karabakh Foreign Ministry has told Forum 18 that no case has yet been formally brought against him. His congregation were expecting him to be tried in June.

21 June 2005

AZERBAIJAN: Police with hostile TV crew raid meeting

Some 25 police and a hostile film crew from Space TV raided a Jehovah's Witness congress in the capital Baku on 12 June, echoing similar earlier raids on both Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja [Gäncä]. Both police and the public prosecutor have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why a legally registered religious community was raided, a policeman stating that they "were fined and then released. We won't give out any other information by phone." Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 that "when the police arrived they gave the journalists orders of what to film," and that journalists tried to film interviews with local Jehovah's Witnesses and people from Georgia and the Netherlands against their will. Space TV falsely claimed that a criminal prosecution had been launched with the raid on "a non-traditional religion," but insists – against the evidence – that it also showed the Jehovah's Witness side of the story.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

20 May 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist faces two years jail or two years forced labour

Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan faces either being jailed or sent to do forced labour for two years for refusing, on religious grounds, to swear the military oath, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Mirzoyan has been beaten up several times in two different military units in Nagorno-Karabakh since being called up last December, when he refused to serve with weapons. He has also been detained for more than 10 days for sharing his faith with other soldiers and possessing several Christian calendars. Mirzoyan's trial has now been set for June and fellow Baptists have told Forum 18 that the "harsh reality" of the maltreatment Baptist conscripts suffered in the Soviet era is returning. Gagik Mirzoyan's congregation has earlier faced harassment from the Karabakh authorities and other Protestants and religious minorities, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activity.

17 May 2005

ARMENIA: Not illegal deportation, merely illegal removal

Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Armen Grigoryan faces a six year jail sentence, after his illegal deportation from his own country, Armenia, and his refusal to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. But Armenia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdyan, denied to Forum 18 that Grigoryan had been deported. "You can't call it illegal deportation – there's no such term. I'm a specialist on this. Perhaps it might have been illegal removal from the country." She defended what she claimed was the right of the Armenian Defence Ministry to send Armenian citizens to Nagorno-Karabakh, which international law regards as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia continues to break its promises to the Council of Europe to free conscientious objectors and introduce a civilian alternative to military service. Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses continue to be beaten up and jailed for conscientious objection.

15 April 2005

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Beating and 12 day imprisonment for Baptist soldier

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach V. Davidov, commanding officer of the unit in Hadrut of the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic where Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan was beaten and detained for more than ten days in early April before being transferred to an unknown location. Mirzoyan "is being persecuted for preaching the Gospel and because they found several Christian calendars in his possession," his relatives and friends told Forum 18 after meeting him at the unit just before his transfer. Mirzoyan has been threatened with a two year prison sentence.

21 March 2005

ARMENIA: New wave of Jehovah's Witness sentences

Five young Jehovah's Witnesses are known to have been imprisoned for refusing military service so far in March, the largest number in a single month since last October and in continuing defiance of Armenia's commitment to the Council of Europe to end imprisonment of conscientious objectors. One, Arman Agazaryan, a 28-year-old dentist, is the only breadwinner in his extended family of six, his lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Forum 18 News Service. Khachatryan also complains of the treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses who have opted for the alternative military service, saying they remain under military control, have to serve far longer than those in the army and are banned from joining their fellow Jehovah's Witnesses for worship. There is no civilian alternative service.

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