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19 April 2004

ARMENIA: Council of Europe fails to punish commitment violations over imprisoned conscientious objectors

With 24 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for refusing military service on grounds of conscience, another fined and a further three awaiting trial, Council of Europe officials have been unable to explain to Forum 18 News Service what punishment Armenia faces – if any - for violating its commitments to the organisation. The commitments required Armenia to have freed all imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduced alternative service by January 2004, but it failed on both counts. One outsider involved in the issue at the Council of Europe, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18 that the Armenian government had deployed "an especially successful lobbying campaign" to have the issue buried. The Jehovah's Witnesses, one of Armenia's largest religious minorities, appear no nearer to receiving state registration.

25 February 2004

AZERBAIJAN: Police refuse to protect Adventists facing death threats

Police have refused to protect an Adventist pastor in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), who has been threatened by local men with death or being driven out of the community. "People phone and come to my house to threaten us but the authorities have refused to help," Pastor Khalid Babaev told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Babaev fears for the safety of his wife and son, and does not know if it will be safe to hold a service as usual next Saturday. Local Muslims have threatened to sacrifice Babaev as a holy duty and to halt Adventist religious activity in Nakhichevan. If Pastor Babaev holds another service, he has been told that a mob will be collected to attack his house. The police have refused to discuss the threats with Forum 18, or say what they would do to protect church members from the threatened violence.

4 February 2004

ARMENIA: Government breaks promises to Council of Europe

Armenia promised the Council of Europe that it would free all imprisoned conscientious objectors by 26 January 2004. But in a clear violation of this promise, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that that day Artak Saiyan, a Jehovah's Witness, was jailed for 2 years for refusing military service. Today (4 February) postponed two more trials until mid-February, with another Jehovah's Witness due in court tomorrow. A total of 16 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors are now in jail, with ten more awaiting trial. Despite this, Ara Margaryan of the Armenian Foreign Ministry claimed to Forum 18 that "We understand our obligations to the Council of Europe very well and we honour them, but we can't break existing laws which say that all those who refuse to serve in the army must be punished." Armenia is also in breach of another Council of Europe commitment to allow all religious communities to practise their faith "without discrimination", by its repeated failure to give state registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses, even though they have applied for registration many times.

20 November 2003

GEORGIA: Orthodox permission needed for religious literature imports

Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 News Service that importing religious literature can be difficult and expensive, or even impossible, due both to obstruction from the Orthodox Patriarchate and also to corruption among officials. There is repeatedly said to be an unpublished instruction to Customs officials from Patriarch Ilya banning the religious literature imports without his permission. Giorgi Andriadze of the Patriarchate told Forum 18 that the Patriarchate only objects to large quantities of non-Orthodox literature being imported. "It's a question of proselytism. If groups bring in millions of books, that means they intend to proselytise. If they bring in enough for their own followers, it's their right." The Armenian Apostolic and Jewish communities have not had any problems with literature importation.

3 November 2003

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Officials defend restrictions on minority faiths

Following Forum 18 News Service's report of official threats to a local Baptist, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have defended to Forum 18 the actions they took against him and their restrictions on minority religious activity. The authorities state action was taken, not on the basis of martial law as police claimed but, on the basis of street-trading and customs legislation, and deny that threats were made against the Baptist or his family. The authorities also point out that the only faith to have state registration is the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nagorno-Karabakh states that it abides by international human rights agreements. However all such agreements prevent religious activity being restricted because religious communities either do not have or wish to acquire state registration.

24 October 2003

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Police beat up, threaten Baptist and family.

A Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh has been beaten up, threatened with mind-altering drugs and had threats against his wife, for distributing religious literature on the street. At the same time his local church had all its religious literature confiscated. Police claim this is legal under martial law, which amongst other restrictions on civil liberties bans the activity of "religious sects and unregistered organisations". However a senior Nagorno-Karabakh representative has claimed to Forum 18 that martial law restrictions have ended and that "There are no restrictions on the activity of any religious communities". Other Protestants, Pentecostals, Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses have also all faced restrictions on their activity which still continue. At the same time the Armenian Apostolic Church has become the de facto state religion.

9 October 2003

ARMENIA: No let-up in Jehovah's Witness sentences

With ten Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors sentenced to terms of between one and two years since the new Criminal Code came into force on 1 August and another expecting to be tried around 25 October, the special representative in Armenia of the Council of Europe secretary general says such continuing sentencing violates Armenia's commitments to end the practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors. "All the conscientious objectors should have been freed in line with Armenia's commitments back in January 2001, when it joined the Council of Europe," Natalia Voutova told Forum 18 News Service. But Narine Nikolian, Armenia's deputy representative to the Council of Europe, denied this, insisting to Forum 18 that no-one can be released from what she claimed is their constitutional obligation until a new alternative service law is adopted.

9 July 2003

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE MEETING ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION - A REGIONAL SURVEY

Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.

8 July 2003

ARMENIA: "No change" for Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors

As the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance condemned Armenia for continuing to imprison Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors and deny the group registration, a court in Alaverdi sentenced Araik Bedjanyan on 2 July to one and a half years in labour camp for refusing military service. Now 24 Jehovah's Witnesses are serving sentences, while a further eight – two of them arrested on 3 July – await trial. Hovhannes Asyryan of the presidential human rights commission told Forum 18 News Service he was optimistic that parliament would adopt a new alternative service law this autumn in line with its commitment to the Council of Europe, but Jehovah's Witness lawyer Rustam Khachatryan was sceptical. "The authorities promise a lot but never fulfil their promises."

25 April 2003

ARMENIA: Secret order banishes religious minorities from police

Human rights activists, the Baptists and the Jehovah's Witnesses have criticised a secret order issued by the head of the police service last December banning members of religious minorities from working for the police. "This order is unconstitutional and violates human rights," Mikael Danielian of the Helsinki Association told Forum 18 News Service. "We regard this order as very negative," Asatur Nahapetyan, general secretary of the Baptist Union, declared. Drew Holiner, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer who defended Zemfira Voskanyan sacked earlier this year from the police for her faith, agreed. "It is clearly discriminatory," he told Forum 18. "It requires dismissal in pretty unambiguous terms of those who belong to other groups than the Armenian Apostolic Church." Forum 18 has been unable to obtain the text of the secret order and has not found any official prepared to discuss why religious minorities cannot serve in the police.

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