GEORGIA - ABKHAZIA: Four Year Jail Sentence for Jehovah's Witness

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 12 December 2000

A Jehovah's Witness in the self-declared Republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea has been sentenced to four years' imprisonment in a strict regime labour camp for desertion from the army, after being conscripted against his will. The charge against Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors up until now has been evasion of military service, which carries a penalty of a shorter custodial sentence in a less harsh regime camp.

Military service for all males between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory in Abkhazia, with compulsory reserve service until the age of 60. Abkhazia's 1994 Constitution does not provide for an alternative to military service, although article 11 states that Abkhazia recognises and guarantees the rights and freedoms upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights agreements (to which Abkhazia, as an unrecognised entity, is not eligible to become a state party).

Elgudzha Tsulaya, who is 18, refused to report for military service at the drafting office in the town of Tkvarchel on grounds of conscience. From 17-30 May he was held under arrest in Tkvarchel and on 30 May was forced to report to the drafting office. The following day he left the office and lodged a complaint about his treatment to the regional procuracy. No action was taken over his complaint and on 10 August Tsulaya was accused of desertion and immediately arrested. On 17 October the Military Court handed down the four year sentence. On 21 November the criminal case review board at the Supreme Court, chaired by deputy chairman Gennady Stepanov, rejected Tsulaya's appeal.

The head of the military court that sentenced Tsulaya, Judge Roman Mushba, defended the ruling. `He was not convicted for his religious belief but for avoiding military service,' he declared from the Abkhaz capital Sukhum on 1 December.

The Russian Jehovah's Witness lawyer Artur Leontiev, who represented Tsulaya in court, told Keston News Service on 24 November that the Supreme Court did not act in accordance with the conclusions of the chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, Tamaz Ketsba, who had given evidence in court as a legal specialist. He had explained that the court should be governed by the Constitution, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cited in the Constitution and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mushba confirmed that Abkhazia's parliamentary legal committee is currently examining a draft law on alternatives to military service, which he claimed would ultimately benefit Tsulaya. `I would think that during the time he is in prison they will make a law for alternative service and we will take another look at his case,' Mushba said. `That way the problem will be solved.'

According to Leontiev, this is the first case in which a Jehovah's Witness, despite his refusal to perform military service on religious grounds, has been forced to report to the drafting office and has then been subjected to a trumped-up charge of desertion. This demonstrates that the authorities are likely in the future to impose stricter penalties on conscientious objectors.

The Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba issued a decree in 1995 banning the Jehovah's Witnesses because its members refuse to perform military service. Despite this, Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate they currently have about 1,000 active members in Abkhazia. Since the ban about 30 draft-age members have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army. (END)