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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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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.

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.

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.


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.

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."

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.

ARMENIA: Police reinstate Jehovah's Witness – for now

Jehovah's Witness Zemfira Voskanyan, sacked from her job with the police in the wake of a secret December decree requiring members of minority faiths to be removed from the police, is back at her desk after she challenged her dismissal in court. "We reinstated her in her job," Colonel Arshaluis Budagyan of the Lori regional police, who had originally sacked her, told Forum 18 News Service. But Voskanyan's lawyer Drew Holiner said she was reinstated only on a technicality. "It fails to remove the threat to her job caused by this discriminatory order," he told Forum 18. He said she is now considering a further appeal.

ARMENIA: Appeal court doubles Jehovah's Witness sentence

The lawyer for Jehovah's Witness Hambartsum Odabashyan, whose sentence for refusing military service on grounds of his faith was doubled today (1 April) to three years in labour camp, has described the sentence as "illegal". "The court took no account of Armenia's obligations to the Council of Europe to end the sentencing of conscientious objectors," Razmik Khachaturyan told Forum 18 News Service. But foreign ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Agadjanian denied that the continuing sentencing of conscientious objectors has caused conflict with the Council of Europe. "It does not violate our commitments," she told Forum 18 and pledged that a "full stop" would be put to the practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors by the end of 2003. A Council of Europe official told Forum 18 that the Armenian authorities' claim that imprisoning conscientious objectors did not violate their commitments was "absurd". "It is unacceptable. How can this continued sentencing be in line with the commitments Armenia made?"

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