ARMENIA: Promises broken by continuing jailing of prisoners of conscience
This month (October), five Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to jail terms for their conscientious objection, on religious grounds, to military service. A sixth prisoner of conscience has been given a lesser sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The number of imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses has been brought to thirteen by these sentences, with a further two awaiting trial on the same charges. The continued sentencing and detention of religious prisoners of conscience clearly violates Armenia's previous promises to free its religious prisoners, and to introduce alternative civilian service. The Armenian Foreign Ministry declined to explain to Forum 18 how these latest sentences matched Armenia's previous promises, claiming that the issue is "outside the competence of the Foreign Ministry".
"Technically these sentences are correct, as all the Jehovah's Witnesses were called up before the new alternative service law came into force," Stefan Buchmayer, human rights officer at the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told Forum 18 on 19 October. "However, they show a certain lack of goodwill on the part of the authorities as everyone knew that the law was coming into force on 1 July. Besides, the right to alternative service is an important human right – that is why our office has been following these cases."
On 22 June, the Armenian Parliament's deputy speaker Tigran Torosyan, who heads the Armenian delegation to the Council of Europe, told Jehovah's Witness representatives at the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg that all conscientious objector prisoners would be freed once the new law on alternative service came into force on 1 July (see F18News 3 August 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=384).
Natalia Voutova, the Council of Europe representative in Yerevan, told Forum 18 on 19 October that her organisation is monitoring the latest developments. She pointed out that in 2001 Armenia committed itself to adopting an alternative service law and freeing all imprisoned conscientious objectors and said that these commitments have been closely monitored since 2001. The Armenian Foreign Ministry declined to explain how the latest sentences met Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe. Vladimir Karapetian of the ministry's Media Relations Division claimed to Forum 18 on 19 October that the issue is "outside the competence of the Foreign Ministry".
This month's new sentences bring the number of imprisoned Jehovah's Witness young men to thirteen, with a further two are awaiting trial on the same charges. The continued sentencing and detention of religious prisoners of conscience violates Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe, and comes after the justice ministry finally registered the Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious community, after years of official obstruction (see F18News 12 October 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=430).
Four of the new prisoners were sentenced by a court in the town of Armavir, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of the capital: Karen Hakopyan on 7 October, Arsen Sarkisyan on 8 October, Mher Mirpakhatyan on 13 October, and Artur Manukyan on 14 October. Hovhanes Bayatyan was sentenced by Yerevan's Erebuni-Nubarashen court on 14 October. All were given the maximum sentence under Article 327 part I of the criminal code, which reads: "Evading a recurring call to emergency military service, or educational or military training, without a legal basis for being relieved of this service, shall incur a fine in the amount of 300 to 500 minimum [monthly] wages or arrest for up to two months or imprisonment for up to two years." They are now being held in Nubarashen prison.
A sixth, Asatur Badalyan, was sentenced on 1 October to one and a half year's imprisonment by a court in Kotaik in central Armenia, but the judge allowed him to remain at home because it was felt as a Jehovah's Witness his behaviour would be good. However, there are fears he will be arrested on 20 October, Khachatryan told Forum 18. Two other Jehovah's Witnesses received two year prison sentences in August.
Meanwhile, the trial of Grisha Kazaryan, arrested on 17 September and being detained in Nubarashen, is expected at the end of October. Nshan Shagiyan, who is from Yerevan, was required to give a written undertaken on 16 September not to leave the city. His trial is due at Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia court on 26 October.
Jehovah's Witness lawyer Khachatryan told Forum 18 that all these young men wrote to both the recruitment office, and the general public prosecutor, explaining that they could not do military service because of their religious beliefs (the Jehovah's Witnesses are pacifists), but that they were prepared to do alternative civilian service outside the control of the armed forces. He said the recruitment office summoned each applicant, to establish that they had actually written the application. Recruitment office officials then told each one verbally that alternative service did not exist and handed their cases to the prosecutor, after which criminal proceedings were launched.
"The alternative service law has been adopted, but there is no mechanism for doing alternative service yet," Khachatryan lamented. "Besides, it's not clear that when it does come in whether it will be genuinely civilian or not. The law doesn't say it will be civilian."
Khachatryan added that the autumn call-up is now underway. Four Jehovah's Witness young men have written to the recruitment office so far, indicating that they cannot serve in the military on religious grounds and applying for alternative civilian service. "Nothing has happened to them so far," he noted.
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12 October 2004
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.
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."