NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "Inhuman" sentence on religious conscientious objector
Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan has been jailed for four years, by a court in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, for refusing to do military service – even though he stated that he would do alternative, non-military, service. Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanyan, the Defence Minister, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that "it doesn't depend on me – according to our law of Nagorno-Karabakh there is no alternative service, so they are sentenced in line with the law." But General Ohanyan noted that, in individual cases, provision has been made for religious conscientious objectors to do military service in non-combat roles. He quoted the case of a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused to fight in the army despite pressure from the Armenian Apostolic Church's military chaplain. "He is now serving (..) without arms and without swearing the military oath. Otherwise he's doing everything the other conscripts do. He's now content." Baptist sources, who preferred not to be identified, confirmed to Forum 18 that Mirzoyan was happy with his terms of service.
Hovhanesyan, who is 18 and from a Jehovah's Witness family in Stepanakert, told the court he was prepared to do an alternative, non-military service. But, in the absence of such alternative service in Nagorno-Karabakh, he was sentenced on 16 February under Article 327 Part 3 of the Nagorno-Karabakh Criminal Code, which punishes evasion of military service "in conditions of martial law, in war conditions or during military actions" with a sentence of between four and eight years. (Nagorno-Karabakh has adopted the criminal code introduced in Armenia in 2003.) Hovhanesyan was detained after the verdict was announced.
Khachatryan described Judge Stepanyan, who heard the case, as a "good man". "He said during the trial that he didn't want to sentence Hovhanesyan but had to because of the law." He also praised the prosecutor. But Khachatryan insists his client "should never have been tried on the basis of his faith". He blames the recent presidential decree extending the military state in Karabakh until 1 January 2006 which allowed the heavy sentence to be imposed. Although a ceasefire with Azerbaijan has been in place since 1994, the conflict over the territory remains unresolved.
Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanyan, Defence Minister of the unrecognised republic, insisted that those who cannot serve in the armed forces on grounds of conscience have to be dealt with under the law. "It doesn't depend on me – according to our law of Nagorno-Karabakh there is no alternative service, so they are sentenced in line with the law," he told Forum 18 from Stepanakert on 21 February. "Those who refuse to serve in the defence of our homeland are putting our republic at risk."
Asked why – given that Nagorno-Karabakh claims to abide by international human rights norms - Jehovah's Witnesses and others who cannot serve in the armed forces could not do alternative civilian service, for example in hospitals, he responded: "According to international norms, citizens should have this right, but we're in a military situation so we can't afford to do this. Besides, hospitals here are also considered military."
General Ohanyan said that, were Nagorno-Karabakh to allow an alternative non-military service, the numbers of those wanting to do it would rise. But he promised to consider the possibility.
He noted that in individual cases, his armed forces have made provision for believers who cannot fight on grounds of conscience to work within the military in non-combat roles. He pointed to the case of the young Baptist Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused to fight after conscription into the army despite pressure from his commander and the Armenian Apostolic Church's military chaplain (see F18News 6 January 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=483). "He is now serving in Hadrut region without arms and without swearing the military oath," Ohanyan told Forum 18. "Otherwise he's doing everything the other conscripts do. He's now content."
General Ohanyan's assertion that Mirzoyan was happy with his terms of service was confirmed by Baptist sources. "He's serving without weapons and without the oath – that's how a Christian should serve," one Baptist who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 on 21 February.
Ohanyan insisted that Mirzoyan – who was called up on 6 December 2004 - had never been beaten while in the hands of the army, despite Baptist insistence that his unit commander and the chaplain, Fr Petros Yezegyan, had beaten him on separate occasions in December. "We conducted an investigation into these allegations and I want to assure you he was never beaten," Ohanyan told Forum 18.
Although in earlier years the terms of martial law – renewed annually since 1992 - included the banning of the activity of "religious sects and unregistered organisations", Khachatryan told Forum 18 that the current martial law decree contains no such ban. Although in recent years activity by Protestant Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses has on occasion been obstructed (see eg. F18News 27 September 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=420), both the Baptists and the Jehovah's Witnesses say they can currently meet for worship without obstruction. "The authorities keep a watch on our activity, but that's OK – let them know what we're up to," Khachatryan told Forum 18. (END)
A printer-friendly map of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=azerba within the map titled 'Azerbaijan'.
10 February 2005
Azerbaijan's Supreme Court has decided that a Jehovah's Witness can be forced to do military service – even though the constitution claims that "alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." The court argued that, as no law on civilian alternative service exists, the appeal of Mahir Bagirov must be rejected. Azerbaijan has broken a promise to the Council of Europe to introduce a law by January 2003. Sayad Kirimov, deputy head of parliament's administrative and military law department, told Forum 18 News Service that "the Supreme Court can't use the absence of a law to deprive someone of their constitutional rights." Bagirov's lawyer told Forum 18 that the ruling will be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. After this Supreme Court decision, Bagirov "expects to be arrested by the military police and disappear into a military barracks where he anticipates being subjected to brutal treatment as an alleged deserter."
6 January 2005
Armen Grigoryan, a religious conscientious objector who is seriously contemplating becoming a Jehovah's Witness, has been forcibly taken by the Armenian authorities from Armenia to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After he was beaten up, Grigoryan was forced to stand in his underwear in front of about 1,800 soldiers to tell them why he refused to do military service. "He told everyone present that his rejection was based on his religious beliefs and his study of the Bible," his father told Forum 18. This is the first instance known to Forum 18 of an Armenian religious conscientious objector being forcibly taken to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has repeatedly broken its promises to the Council of Europe on the treatment of conscientious objectors. Grigoryan has now escaped from the military and has written to the Armenian authorities from his hiding place, to say that he is prepared to do alternative civilian service.
6 January 2005
An Armenian Apostolic Church military chaplain, Fr Petros Yezegyan, has vehemently denied to Forum 18 News Service that he beat up a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused on religious grounds to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic's army. Fr Yezegyan admitted talking to Mirzoyan for some hours, and Baptist sources have told Forum 18 that "for the final hour and a half the priest beat the brother so badly that blood flowed from his nose and mouth". Baptists have also stated that this was the second beating Mirzoyan received, the first being by a unit commander who assaulted him after he refused to abandon his faith and to serve in the army. Relatives have been refused information on where Mirzoyan currently is, and the Defence Ministry would only tell Forum 18 that he "is still alive."