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ARMENIA: Appeal court upholds conscientious objector's jail term

On 7 February, Yerevan's Criminal Court of Appeal rejected 20-year-old Baptist conscientious objector Davit Nazaretyan's appeal against a two-year jail term imposed in October 2023 for refusing military service. The judges ignored European Court of Human Rights judgments, including against Armenia. Nazaretyan's applications for alternative civilian service were repeatedly denied. He is considering a further appeal and will not be required to go to jail until any further appeal is heard. The last known jailed conscientious objector was freed in 2021.

ARMENIA: Conscientious objector's two-year jail term

On 25 October, a Yerevan court handed Baptist conscientious objector Davit Nazaretyan a two-year jail sentence for "Avoidance of mandatory military or alternative service or conscription", despite his repeated requests for alternative civilian service. "Of course it's bad, but the law demands it," said religious affairs official Vardan Astsatryan. Nazaretyan plans to appeal, and is at home until it is heard. Multiple officials have not explained to Forum 18 why international human rights obligations to respect the rights of conscientious objectors to military service should not apply in Nazaretyan's case.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Second ECtHR finding against Armenia on entity's religious freedom

On 22 March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that Nagorno-Karabakh had violated the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses by refusing from 2009 to register their community in the entity. The ECtHR ordered Armenia – as exercising "effective control" there - to pay compensation. Jehovah's Witnesses and some Protestant communities are still denied registration. Armenia's Representative to the ECtHR has not stated what steps Armenia will take to end the violations.

ARMENIA: Building places of worship "not appropriate"

Two of three applications by the Jehovah's Witness community in Armenia's capital Yerevan to build places of worship were deemed "not appropriate" because of "precedents" of "complaints and intolerance" from the public. The third was rejected because of unresolved "construction concerns" on the street. Andranik Kasaryan, head of the city's Architecture Department, told Forum 18 News Service the applications had been rejected because of "earlier complaints about sects" after the Department had given building permission. "Residents complained to us that they don't want a religious organisation next door to them." One Armenian Catholic told Forum 18 of the "unwritten rule" that Catholicos Karekin, head of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church, must give permission before non-Armenian Apostolic places of worship can be built. And human rights defender Stepan Danielyan told Forum 18: "Officials try not to allow non-Armenian Apostolic religious communities to have officially-recognised visible places of worship".

ARMENIA: Jailed conscientious objectors freed - but alternative service applications missing?

Armenia's Jehovah's Witness community has welcomed the freeing from prison of all conscientious objectors jailed for refusing military service, and the approval of 71 applications for the new civilian alternative service. However, Jehovah's Witnesses expressed concern over 41 further applications to the government's Alternative Service Committee – many lodged in July – which officials claimed to Forum 18 News Service have not been received. 12 of those waiting for a Committee decision have criminal cases against them, and have been deprived of passports. This means, among other things, that they cannot travel abroad, legally work, or marry. Artur Sogomonyan – secretary of the Alternative Service Committee – insisted to Forum 18 that no applications had been lost. The Territorial Administration Ministry spokesperson claimed she could not answer Forum 18's question as it had not been formulated in accordance with the law.

ARMENIA: "Imprisoned conscientious objectors should be immediately and unconditionally released"

Armenian Jehovah's Witnesses have welcomed the release from jail of eight conscientious objectors to military service. The men all had less than six months of their sentences to run. However, 20 prisoners of conscience remain in jail. "Our position is that the 20 imprisoned conscientious objectors should be immediately and unconditionally released", they told Forum 18 News Service. The government has now introduced alternative civilian service and set up an Alternative Service Committee to decide on applications for alternative service. It is due to hold its first full meeting to consider 65 applications – from Jehovah's Witnesses and others - in the week of 21 to 25 October. Yet Jehovah's Witnesses state that 97 of their young men, including the 20 prisoners of conscience, have applied to have their cases considered. Questions also remain over how the Committee will make decisions. Stepan Danielyan of Collaboration for Democracy notes that only during the November call-up will it be clear whether the new system will allow individuals to choose which type of service to do in accordance with their conscience.

ARMENIA: New legal amendments to end conscientious objector jailings?

Nine and a half years, and about 275 prisoners of conscience, after Armenia should have by January 2004 introduced a civilian alternative to compulsory military service, human rights defenders and conscientious objectors are hoping this Council of Europe commitment will be met. The change comes in new amendments to the Alternative Service Law, and to the Law on Implementing the Criminal Code, which come into force on 8 June. "Our main concern was that alternative civilian service should not be under military control," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Artur Ispiryan told Forum 18 News Service. "This appears to have been resolved." Ispiryan and human rights defenders Stepan Danielyan of Collaboration for Democracy and Avetik Ishkhanyan of the Armenian Helsinki Committee stress that how the legal changes are implemented will be crucial. "This will need close monitoring", Ishkhanyan told Forum 18. Concerns include the Defence Ministry's role in decisions on applications for alternative service, unclear wording of some articles, and the length of alternative service.

ARMENIA: Two new imprisonments as Strasbourg again fines government

Two young men who refused military service and military-controlled alternative service were imprisoned in November, bringing the current total to 31, all of them Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Anania Grigoryan and Artsrun Khachatryan were sentenced in the summer, but were imprisoned only after their appeals failed. A further 15 already convicted are likely to be imprisoned if their appeals fail. The new imprisonments come as Armenia has been fined for the fourth time by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights in a conscientious objection-related case. For the first time in such cases, Armenia's European Court Judge, Alvina Gyulumyan, did not dissent from the judgment. A judge in Yerevan today (3 December) postponed the handing down of a sentence in the criminal trial of conscientious objector Vartkes Sahakyan, saying he needed time to study the latest Strasbourg judgment.

ARMENIA: Jailings of conscientious objectors resume

With two new jailings of conscientious objectors in August – both Jehovah's Witnesses – Armenia has resumed such jailings after a break of a year, bringing prisoner numbers to 32, Forum 18 News Service notes. In addition, 16 young Jehovah's Witnesses so far in 2012 have been given jail terms which have not yet been enacted, five of them in September. And cases of a further 23 are in court or with prosecutors. "The law is the law and we have to enforce it," the General Prosecutor's Office insisted to Forum 18. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the UN Human Rights Committee have both condemned Armenia's failure to free imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. Deputy Justice Minister Ruben Melikyan was unable to say when the proposed new Alternative Service Law will be made public. "The Justice Ministry talks a lot but does nothing," human rights defender Artur Sakunts told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: After Strasbourg punishment, will government resolve alternative service issue "for ever"?

On 10 January the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) again ordered Armenia to pay compensation to two Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector former prisoners for violating their rights to religious freedom. The punishment followed two critical Opinions from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of the 2011 proposed amendments to the Alternative Service Law. They say these do not go far enough to bring in a fully-civilian alternative to military service which is not punitive in length. But Deputy Justice Minister Ruben Melikyan told Forum 18 News Service that a government Working Group is already preparing new amendments to the Alternative Service Law "fully taking into account the OSCE and Venice Commission views" and the ECtHR rulings. He said it would be adopted "this year". However, he said until it is adopted, the courts cannot free the 57 imprisoned conscientious objectors nor halt the prosecution of a further 14.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Conscientious objector jailed for 30 months

Jehovah's Witness Karen Harutyunyan has been sentenced in the unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh to 30 months' imprisonment, for refusing compulsory military service. Even before his trial, he had been transferred to the prison in the hilltop town of Shusha where he will serve his sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The entity's latest prisoner of conscience, who refused military service because of his religious beliefs, is intending to appeal against the sentence. However, the entity's Human Rights Ombudsperson Yuri Hairapetyan insisted Harutyunyan broke the law, and doubted that anyone could refuse the entity's compulsory military service. He asked Forum 18: "How can this be justified? Maybe he's not even a Jehovah's Witness." Ashot Sargsyan, Head of the government's Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, described the jail sentence as "absurd" because he claimed it is too mild. He has called for the Criminal Code to be changed to make anyone refusing military service pay a massive fine and do some form of alternative service. Harutyunyan's imprisonment comes as revisions to the Religion Law are being prepared, which could make the restrictive Law even harsher.

COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

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