ARMENIA: Jehovah's Witness Trial Adjourned.

by Lorna Howard, Keston News Service, 6 August 2001

The trial of Levon Markaryan, a Jehovah’s Witness accused under Article 244 of the Armenian Criminal Code of ‘enticing’ minors into attending meetings of an ‘unregistered religion’, has been adjourned until 10 August. On 2 August one prosecution witness gave evidence for about an hour, but five others failed to appear. Following this, Markaryan’s lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Keston News Service from Yerevan on 3 August, both the prosecutor and the defence asked to be allowed to call additional witnesses - including the mayor of Medzamor, the town where the alleged offences took place – and the hearing was adjourned. ‘They are trying to drag the case out,’ he said.

Article 244, part 1, under which Markaryan is charged, dates back to the anti-religious campaign of the early 1960s led by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. (see KNS 26 July). Other former Soviet republics have removed the article from their criminal codes. If convicted, Markaryan faces up to five years in prison.

An internal letter leaked to Keston News Service appears to support suggestions that the National Security Ministry (former KGB) is behind the case against Markaryan. Colonel G. Seyranyan of the Armavir regional National Security Ministry – the officer Jehovah’s Witnesses allege to be responsible - wrote to the procurator of Armavir region Ivan Arshakyan on 26 April that Markaryan, ‘upon learning of the case against him, started to work even more actively to propagate his religion’. The letter claims that at a meeting on 20 April in one of the “activists’” flats, Markaryan gave out religious literature to members for distribution, along with instructions that when investigators from the procuracy started questioning members of the group aged under 18, everyone should say that they had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses without any compulsion or pressure from members. It is not clear where Seyranyan’s information about what happened at the meeting came from; one possibility is that there were informants among those attending.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness press release issued on 2 August, conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds has become ‘a key issue’ in the trial. One of the main witnesses in the trial was himself arrested on 25 July, on charges of ‘evasion of military service’. Prosecutors allege that Markaryan, in addition to encouraging young people to attend meetings of an unregistered religious organisation, ‘influenced’ members not to serve in the army. The press release also drew attention to a 1 August television news report on the national channel A1+, which, it said, reported ‘that this case highlights a contradiction in the Armenian Constitution which guarantees freedom of conscience but also demands that each citizen perform military service.’

Asked by Keston if the Armenian government intends to abide by its Council of Europe commitment to register the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dziunik Aghajanian, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on 26 July: ‘We do not have any specific commitment with the Council of Europe regarding the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’. Questioned about the sentencing of conscientious objectors, she said that ‘the only commitment the Armenian government has accepted concerns the adoption of the law on alternative service within a three year period after becoming a member and in the meantime, to pardon all conscientious objectors sentenced to prison terms or service in disciplinary battalions, allowing them instead to choose (when the law on alternative service has come into force) to perform non-armed military service or alternative civilian service’. The Jehovah’s Witnesses report that 31 of their conscientious objectors have been freed, but that eight remain in prison and five ‘under arrest but allowed to live at home provided they regularly report to the local police’. Markaryan’s lawyer – who is not a Jehovah’s Witness himself - reported to Keston that the young man arrested on 25 July, Aram Shahverdyan, had been interrogated for six hours, given no food in that time, and was forced by the investigator to sign a statement. Keston has been unable to verify these assertions.

One Council of Europe official - who declined to be identified - told Keston from Strasbourg on 27 July that Armenia would be kept to its commitments. 'Have no doubt about it. Rapporteurs will be visiting Armenia for a week in October and will report on its compliance. They will definitely be meeting with the Jehovah's Witnesses during the visit.' (END)