ARMENIA: Council of Europe Obligations 'Ignored'

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 6 February 2001

Despite its commitment to the Council of Europe to free all imprisoned conscientious objectors ahead of the adoption of a new law introducing alternative service, Armenia has continued its policy of arresting and sentencing conscientious objectors. Armenian justice ministry officials have told Keston News Service that the imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses will only be freed when the new law is adopted (see separate KNS article) and the country will continue to imprison conscientious objectors until then. Politicians and senior officials at the Council of Europe have told Keston that such an interpretation of Armenia's obligations violates the letter and spirit of the country's commitments made in advance of accession and that the continued sentencing and failure to free those in prison will be a `key issue' on the first visit by the Council's monitoring committee rapporteurs.

Rustam Khachatryan, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer, told Keston from Yerevan on 6 February that Karen Yegoyan was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for refusing military service on 1 February - a week after Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe on 25 January. He is now serving his term in Sovetashen prison. A further four young Jehovah's Witness men have been arrested since the accession and are now awaiting trial. `Everything is continuing as before,' Khachatryan declared. `They are just ignoring the Council of Europe commitments. I know for certain our prisoners will not be released.' He reported that as of now, 23 Witnesses are serving sentences in prison, 14 are now at home but have to report regularly to the police, and two are due to go on trial in addition to the four just arrested.

Gayane Abrahamian, spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry, denied that the policy of continuing sentencing represented a violation of Armenia's Council of Europe commitments. `Until the law on alternative service is adopted,' she declared by telephone from Yerevan on 6 February, `the law on military service which requires men to conduct military service still applies. The Criminal Code spells out the punishment for those who fail to conduct military service.' Asked if that meant that conscientious objectors will still be sentenced and imprisoned despite Armenia's Council of Europe commitments, she declared: `This is the current law.'

Asked how a policy of continued sentencing squared with its new commitments, which Armenia knew about as early as spring 2000, Abrahamian declared: `They must be sentenced under current law.' Abrahamian claimed that adopting the new law and releasing the prisoners `in parallel' did not violate the commitments.

However, senior politicians and officials of the Council of Europe strongly disagree. `My personal interpretation of the commitments is that "in the meantime" means now,' one senior official told Keston from Strasbourg. `I cannot see anyone interpreting this differently.' Asked whether freeing of the prisoners at the same time as adoption of a new law would meet the commitments, the official responded: `That's not "in the meantime".' The official stressed that the continued sentencing `violates the spirit of Armenia's accession'. Another senior official - who also preferred not to be named - agreed. `It is not my understanding that the release of the imprisoned conscientious objectors can wait for the adoption of the alternative service law,' the official told Keston from Strasbourg.

Council of Europe politicians and officials stress that Armenia's record on the imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses will be `one of the key issues' of the monitoring of its commitments, which began immediately on accession. `On 7 March the monitoring committee is due to appoint two rapporteurs on Armenia,' Mateo Sorinas, director of the political and legal affairs department, told Keston from Strasbourg on 6 February. `Immediately afterwards the rapporteurs will visit Armenia and will go through its obligations with the Armenian authorities point by point. All commitments will be examined - and the question of imprisoned conscientious will be one of them.'

Terry Davis, a member of the British parliament and chairman of the political affairs committee, told Keston that Armenia's treatment of conscientious objectors would be on the `immediate agenda' of the monitoring committee's rapporteurs.

Abrahamian said the imprisoned conscientious objectors could only be amnestied if parliament passed an amnesty law. However, Artak Ghazarian, spokesman for the parliament in Yerevan, told Keston on 6 February that an amnesty would have to be initiated by the president and then be approved by parliament, adding that parliament has received no information that an amnesty is being prepared. Presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told Keston on 6 February that he was not aware of any immediate plans to amnesty the conscientious objectors. (END)