ARMENIA: Verdict Next Week in Jehovah's Witness Trial.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 September 2001

Although the closing hearing in the case against Jehovah’s Witness Levon Markaryan took place today (11 September) in the Armavir regional court, judge Mamvel Simonyan has withheld a verdict until next week. Ahun Yerityan, head of the chancellery at the court, told Keston News Service in the wake of the hearing that the verdict would be given at 11 am on 18 September. She said she did not know the reason for the delay. Simonyan gave no reason to the court.

The case against Markaryan, a lawyer at the Medzamor nuclear power plant near the capital Yerevan and a leader of the local Jehovah’s Witness community, began in court on 20 July. He faces up to five years in prison under Article 244 Part I of the Criminal Code, a provision which punishes `infringement of the person and rights of citizens under the guise of performing religious rituals'. The article was introduced in the early 1960s during the anti-religious campaign unleashed by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, but has been abolished in many other former Soviet republics.

According to Markaryan’s defence team, prosecutor Sedrak Minasyan called for him to be given a two-year sentence and then to be immediately freed on amnesty. ‘This is quite bizarre,’ exclaimed Drew Holiner, an American lawyer based with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who is assisting the defence team. ‘However, if the judge hands down this verdict, although Markaryan would not be in prison he would lose his job at the Medzamor power station,’ Holiner told Keston from Yerevan on 11 September. Pointing out that Markaryan is a father of four, he added: ‘This would punish the family, as he is the breadwinner.’

In his closing statement, Markaryan told the court of the stress the prosecution has put his family under for the past year. ‘Now the prosecutor doesn’t even want me to go to prison,’ he noted bitterly.

Holiner and Rustam Khachatryan, a Yerevan-based lawyer who leads the defence team, say it is too early to tell how the verdict will go. ‘Judge Simonyan appears to have been very objective throughout the proceedings,’ they stress.

In his closing statement, Khachatryan highlighted the use of Article 244 during the Soviet period, noting the prosecution in 1986 of a group of Pentecostals who, according to the verdict at their trial, ‘strayed from the Marxist-Leninist path and preached an outdated gospel’. He noted that the 1986 verdict ordered the Pentecostals’ Bibles to be confiscated and destroyed.

Khachatryan also pointed out to the court what he claimed was the involvement in the case of the government’s State Committee for Religious Affairs, a body that has consistently opposed the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He declared that many documents in the prosecution file contained a computer identification at the foot of each page that, he claimed, identified them as coming from the computer of Vardan Kardelyan, the head of the information and analysis department at the State Committee. ‘When Khachatryan pointed this out the prosecutor’s face turned beet-red,’ declared Holiner, who was present in court.

Holiner told Keston the pages had the code ‘c:\vardan\petchor\aghand\sectinform\yehova’ in Latin characters, a reference to the State Committee. However, Kardelyan denied to Keston on 11 September that he had provided any documentation for the prosecution. Asked about the computer identification on the prosecution documents, he declared: ‘I know nothing about that. The first I have heard about this is from you. We don’t even have the Internet here,’ he added, although when pressed he admitted that he did have a computer. However, he failed to declare categorically that he had not provided files on computer disc to the prosecution, despite Keston’s repeated attempts to clarify the issue.

Kardelyan did declare openly that his office had received ‘very many complaints’ about the Jehovah’s Witnesses which had been forwarded to the local prosecutor’s office. ‘All this was done in accordance with the law and current procedure,’ he told Keston. ‘This does not just apply to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it applies to all.’

Despite repeated questioning, Kardelyan declined to say whether or not he believed Article 244 should be abolished in line with practice in other former Soviet republics.

Another institution that has apparently been heavily involved in the trial is the National Security Ministry, the Armenian successor to the KGB. Keston has been unable to contact Colonel G. Seyranyan of the Armavir regional directorate, who has kept the prosecutor’s office informed of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity (see KNS 6 August 2001), passing on information that appears to have been gained by spies within the Jehovah’s Witness community or through electronic surveillance. (END)