ARMENIA: 'Khrushchevite' Charge Against Medzamor Jehovah's Witness.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 10 July 2001

A Jehovah's Witness from the town of Medzamor close to the capital Yerevan is due to face trial in about ten day's time on charges dating back to the times of the anti-religious campaign led by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. A case against Levon Markaryan was instituted under Article 244 Part 1 of the Criminal Code, an article introduced in the Soviet republics around 1960 and which punishes `infringement of the person and rights of citizens under the guise of performing religious rituals' with a sentence of up to five years' imprisonment. Senior investigator Andranik Sahakyan, who led the investigation, confirmed to Keston News Service that the charges had been brought because children had attended Jehovah's Witness meetings in Medzamor, but denied defence claims that parents had signed documents allowing their children to attend. `There are no such documents,' he declared bluntly.

Sarkaryan has been specifically accused of `enticing' minors into a group `whose activity, carried on under the guise of preaching religious doctrines and performing religious rituals, is connected with causing harm to citizen's health or with other infringements of the person and rights of citizens'. This article has been removed from the criminal code in other post-Soviet republics (it was removed from the Russian criminal code in 1991).

The criminal case was instituted against the 50-year-old Markaryan on 23 March, his lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Keston from Yerevan on 6 July. Sahakyan confirmed that the case has already been handed over to the Armavir regional court, and Malvei Simonyan, the judge at the court who will hear the case, told Keston the hearing is likely to take place around 20 July.

Simonyan confirmed that the article was introduced in the Soviet Armenian code in 1961, admitting openly it was a `Khrushchevite' article which had made it unchanged into the new criminal code. He confirmed the punishment could be up to five years' imprisonment `or exile', he added with an ironic laugh. Asked where someone found guilty would be exiled to, he declared: `Away from their place of residence. But that provision has fallen into disuse.' He declined to comment on Markaryan's case ahead of the trial, but confirmed he was at liberty pending the hearing.

Speaking to Keston from Armavir on 10 July, Sahakyan initially claimed not to remember the case. However, he later insisted that the presence of children at Jehovah's Witness meetings had been illegal. Asked which law banned the attendance of children, he said the 1997 religion law banned all children under the age of 18. Asked why children were often seen at Armenian Apostolic Church services and services of other faiths, he claimed that this provision applied only because the Jehovah's Witnesses are unregistered in Armenia (they have been denied registration on numerous occasions since Armenia gained independence in 1991 though Armenia's Council of Europe obligations - which the government has ignored - committed the country to lifting the ban on their registration - see KNS 16 January 2001). Sahakyan then went on to claim that without registration, all Jehovah's Witness meetings are illegal, although he was unable to specify an article of the religion law that laid this down.

Khachatryan claimed that the whole premise of the case was unjust. `Jehovah's Witness parents come to the meetings with their children,' he told Keston. `They are Jehovah's Witnesses and so are their children. All the time they are there with their parents.' He said the parents had signed statements specifically allowing their children to be present during meetings. `There are no reasons for the accusations.'

`What the lawyer says is not quite true,' Sahakyan told Keston on being informed of the defence claims. `They didn't present any documents with the signatures of parents. Maybe they created them later.' He vigorously rejected suggestions Article 244 was a Soviet-era hangover. `Why Khrushchevite? It's still valid.' He denied that the case against Markaryan represented an attempt to intimidate the Jehovah's Witnesses. `It is not persecution,' he declared. `One hundred percent not. There is full proof of guilt.' (END)