ARMENIA: Key Trial Witness Arrested.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 July 2001

Aram Shahverdyan, an 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness who rejected the prosecutor's allegations in court last Friday (20 July) that Levon Markaryan had forced him to reject military service, has himself been arrested. Jehovah's Witness sources told Keston News Service that Shahverdyan was arrested in Medzamor on 25 July on charges of `evasion of military service'. Jehovah's Witnesses believe the arrest might be an attempt to prevent witnesses for the defence testifying when Markaryan's trial resumes on 2 August. The Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – which sent observers to Markaryan's trial - told Keston on 26 July that they would investigate this latest development.

The investigator in Shahverdyan's case, Melik-Sarkisyan (first name unknown) told Jehovah's Witnesses on 25 July that Shahverdyan had been arrested `in the normal way' and promised that he would not be mistreated while in detention. He is currently being held in Armavir police prison.

At the trial of Markaryan, which began on 20 July at the Armavir regional court, Shahverdyan stressed that he was responsible for his own decision to reject military service and had not been pressured by Markaryan. He related that when call-up officials questioned him about his refusal, he was coerced into writing and signing a statement accusing Markaryan of advising him not to join the army. `That statement did not contain my thoughts,' he told the court. `I studied the Bible and made my own conscientious decision on this issue.'

Prosecutors alleged that Markaryan `enticed' minors into attending meetings of an `unregistered religion' in the town of Medzamor close to Yerevan and `influenced' members not to serve in the army (see KNS 10 July 2001). If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison under Article 244 part 1 of the criminal code, a provision introduced at the time of the anti-religious campaign led by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s. The article has been abolished from the criminal codes of other former Soviet republics.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have alleged that the National Security Ministry, the former KGB, has `fabricated evidence' against Markaryan in a bid to obstruct the group's eventual registration, which has been blocked in Armenia for the past decade. They point out that Markaryan is one of the committee trying to negotiate the terms of registration with the authorities, and believe that if he gets a criminal record the National Security Ministry will be able to use this as an excuse to veto registration.

Lilia Kazaryan, one of the prosecution witnesses, admitted in court that a National Security Ministry officer, whom she named as Vahan, dictated part of her written statement which alleges that `Jehovah's Witnesses are against our government and our religion'. She confessed to not knowing any Jehovah's Witnesses personally, and added, `I heard from state television that they kill themselves'. Five other prosecution witnesses failed to attend the hearing, prompting judge Mamvel Simonyan to adjourn the trial.

Four young people between the ages of 14-18 testified that they attend Jehovah's Witness meetings along with their parents. `Meetings are a pleasure,' 16-year-old Igor Vlasiuk told the court. `I go because I love Jehovah God. I don't want to be in the streets fighting with other boys. At meetings we study the Bible and learn respect for the government and for people of other religions.'

Markaryan, a 50-year-old father of three, works at the nuclear power station at Medzamor, and fears that if convicted he will lose his job there. However, his lawyer, Rustam Khachatryan, is optimistic. `We believe he will be freed,' he told Keston from Yerevan on 23 July. `There are no reasons for sentencing him.' He alleged that Eduard Safaryan, the deputy chairman of the government's Council for Religious Affairs which has consistently opposed the registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses, gave the National Security Ministry information about Markaryan that prompted the case against him.

Keston tried to contact the National Security Ministry to find out if it was behind the moves to prosecute Markaryan, as appears to be the case from the testimony adduced in court, and if so, why, but the telephone of Armenak Manukyan, the ministry's spokesman in Yerevan, went unanswered on 25 and 26 July. Jehovah's Witness sources have told Keston that an officer of the Armavir regional national security office, Colonel G. Seyranyan, is behind the moves, but Keston has been unable to verify this report. Keston has also been unable to verify the identity of the officer named by Kazaryan in court as `Vahan'.

Christine Mardirossian, human rights officer at the OSCE office in Yerevan, told Keston on 26 July that she and a colleague had attended the morning session of Markaryan's trial. She said the OSCE is following the case `very closely' and that the OSCE ambassador, Roy Reeve, had taken up the case verbally with the head of the Europe desk at the foreign ministry ahead of the trial. `The foreign ministry made no commitments about the case,' Mardirossian declared, `although it took note of our interest.'

Dziunik Agadjanian, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, confirmed that the OSCE had approached the foreign ministry, but appeared to downplay it. `It was a simple oral notification that the trial was beginning and that the OSCE would be attending,' she told Keston by telephone from Yerevan on 26 July. `That was all.' She was dismissive about Armenia's failure to abide by its commitments on entering the Council of Europe last January that conscientious objectors would be freed, sentencing of conscientious objectors would halt and that the Jehovah's Witnesses would be registered as a religious organisation. `We have already answered this question many times, so there is nothing new to add,' she declared. `Many countries have difficulties with the Jehovah's Witnesses.'

Mardirossian told Keston bluntly that Armenia `had not implemented its Council of Europe commitments'. She pointed out that even the recent prisoner amnesty to mark the 1,700th anniversary of Armenia's adoption of Christianity as the state religion had failed to free any conscientious objectors. `Conscientious objectors were excluded from the amnesty,' she declared. `The government could have made this gesture, but didn't. It is not following a good track.'

Asked about whether Article 244 should remain in the criminal code, Mardirossian declared that although the OSCE has no `formal position', it believed `of course' that the article as currently formulated was inappropriate and `has to be changed'. `The article allows a lot of room for violations and restrictions of the rights of believers,' she declared. `This has been proved during Markaryan's trial.' She said the OSCE would be seeking information from the Interior Ministry whether it is planning to abolish the article or not.

Although he believes Markaryan will be acquitted, Khachatryan remains concerned about the implications of the case: `If this prosecution proves successful, no Jehovah's Witness in Armenia will be safe from prosecution and imprisonment.' (END)