ARMENIA: Will Armenia now fulfil all its human rights commitments?
After repeated refusals over a nine-year period, the Jehovah's Witness community has finally received state registration. Hratch Keshishian, a Jehovah's Witness leader, told Forum 18 News Service that "when they phoned us from the state registry to tell us that registration had been issued I didn't believe them." But it is not known what impact this will have on the Jehovah's Witnesses serving prison terms for refusing military service, thus breaking Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe. Keshishian told Forum 18 that freedom to practise their faith as a religious community is now the Jehovah's Witnesses' aim, as "registration in itself doesn't resolve all our problems." For example, under Armenia's religion law, but against international human rights obligations, only the Armenian Apostolic Church is legally permitted to conduct missionary activity.
The registration certificate, issued by the state registry of legal entities on 8 October and signed by the deputy justice minister Tigran Mukuchyan, came in response to the Jehovah's Witnesses' fourteenth application, lodged on 9 September. Keshishian said the registration covers the Jehovah's Witnesses' activity across the whole of the country. All earlier applications had been rejected on various grounds, including that the group's beliefs or practices violated the law (see F18News 3 August 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=384 ). The main reason for rejecting one application earlier this year was that the Jehovah's Witnesses had forgotten to indicate the number of copies they were filing.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, who first applied for state registration in Armenia in 1995, were the only significant religious community to have been denied such registration. Without this they were not allowed to print or import religious literature, rent places for meetings, hold conventions or build places of worship, Kingdom Halls.
Registering the Jehovah's Witnesses was a key demand of the Council of Europe, although Keshishian insists that freedom to practise their faith as a religious community is the Jehovah's Witnesses' aim. "Registration in itself doesn't resolve all our problems," he told Forum 18. Under Armenia's 1997 religion law, even religious communities with registration are not allowed to conduct missionary activity (Article 17 of the law gives the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church a monopoly on missionary activity).
Keshishian identified the Jehovah's Witnesses current key aims as acquiring religious literature legally and resolving the problem of their refusal to perform military service on grounds of conscience. He told Forum 18 that it is "too early" for them to think about building Kingdom Halls across the country, not least because of money. "This is a question for the future." He reported that the "nearly 9,000" Jehovah's Witnesses have been meeting in small groups in private homes "in nearly all parts of the country".
Despite a new law on alternative military service, which came into force on 1 July, the Jehovah's Witnesses remain unhappy. The alternative service being offered is not in line with Council of Europe standards as it is far longer than military service and is not genuinely non-military as conscripts remain under the authority of the Ministry of Defence (see F18News 3 August 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=384).
As of 24 September, eight male Jehovah's Witnesses were serving prison terms of between one and two years for refusing military service, while a further five were arrested and awaiting trial. Another three have had to sign undertakings not to leave their home as they await trial. On 29 March, Stepan Epremyan was sentenced to a fine of 300,000 drams (3,868 Norwegian kroner, 471 Euros or 580 US dollars) for refusing military service.
Keshishian said it was their hope that the imprisoned conscientious objectors would now be freed from labour camps and charges dropped against those awaiting trial. "Our young men are ready to do an alternative civilian service, but unfortunately that doesn't yet exist," he told Forum 18. "The next call-up begins in November, and we don't know what will happen then."
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27 September 2004
Masis Mailyan, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognised enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that, despite the latest police raid on a Baptist congregation, the enclave follows the commitments contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, telling Forum 18 that "there are no restrictions on believers and all confessions are equal." However he contradicted himself by stating, contrary to Article 18, that, under the martial law that has operated since 1992, only registered organisations can exist and that Baptists "cannot hold services." Mailyan denied that only the Armenian Apostolic Church is allowed to function, but admitted that it is the only registered religious community. Other local Protestants have told Forum 18 that pressure on their work has eased in recent years and their congregations can function quietly, so it is unclear why the Baptists have been singled out for the authorities' continuing hostility.
3 August 2004
Armenia continues to jail Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, in clear breach of its Council of Europe and OSCE commitments, although human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan has denied to Forum 18 News Service that the commitments have been broken. The head of the state religious affairs department, Hranush Kharatyan, has rejected the right upheld in international human rights agreements of religious believers to spread their beliefs by peaceful means. An alternative service law is theoretically in force, but in practice cannot yet be applied. Jehovah's Witnesses see the alternative service terms as excessive punishment for their refusal to do military service, and are also being denied identity documents – necessary eg. for employment or marriage - on completing jail terms. Also, for the twelfth time since 1995, Jehovah's Witneses have been denied state registration. Stefan Buchmayer, the OSCE's Yerevan human rights officer, told Forum 18 that "one cannot find real legal justification for the refusal."
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.