ARMENIA: Conscientious Objector Sentenced As Others Freed.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 18 September 2001

When Jehovah's Witness Gevork Palyan was sentenced to one year's imprisonment on 12 September by a Yerevan court for refusing military service on religious grounds, he was the latest in a long line of conscientious objectors to face imprisonment in Armenia under Article 75 of the Criminal Code (refusal to perform military service). An amnesty this summer has seen many of them freed, although Armenia continues to ignore its Council of Europe commitment to end punitive measures against conscientious objectors and introduce a law on alternative service. One official told Keston News Service in Yerevan that no alternative service law is in preparation.

To date 37 Jehovah's Witnesses sentenced to terms of up to three years have been released according to a decree issued by parliament on 12 June. Declaring an amnesty for all prisoners serving sentences of up to three years, the decree was promulgated in acknowledgement of the 1,700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia. Speaking to Keston on 11 September, Christine Mardirossian, human rights officer at the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), described the development as 'a positive step '.

As of 10 September, however, 13 Jehovah's Witnesses remain in prisons or penal colonies due to their refusal to perform military service: Khachatur Zakaryan, Amayak Karapetyan, Arman Atanyan, Vahan Mkroyan, Armen Yeghiazaryan, Vladimir Kiroyan, Vladimir Osipyan, Edgar Bagdasaryan, Aram Shahverdyan, Vachagan Hovhannisyan, Karen Vardanyan, Samvel Vardanyan and Karapet Harutyunyan. Four more await trial and a further five are living at home on condition that they report regularly to local police.

Speaking to Keston on 13 September, Vartan Astsatryan of the government's Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) confirmed that the amnesty had taken place, before quipping that Jehovah's Witnesses 'aren't supposed to accept gifts from anyone other than Jehovah, so by their logic they should refuse release'.

Armenia became the 42nd member state of the Council of Europe on 25 January of this year on the understanding that it fulfil a number of conditions, one of which is 'the adoption within three years of accession, of a law on alternative service in compliance with European standards and, in the meantime, to pardon all conscientious objectors sentenced to prison terms on 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'.

To date no such law has come into force and, according to British Jehovah's Witness lawyer Paul Gillies, the Armenian authorities are mistakenly judging conscientious objection to be an obligatory Jehovah's Witness doctrine, citing it as the principal reason for refusing to register the religious organisation. In the latest of four registration refusals in the course of the past decade, the head of the Jehovah's Witness community, Hrachya Keshishyan, was informed in May by CRA acting chairman Levon Mkrtchyan that the organisation lacked a sufficiently clear explanation of 'orientation regarding the fulfilment of civic duties'. Speaking to Keston in Yerevan on 12 September, Gillies thought that the issue of alternative service would be discussed by parliament later the same month, but expressed concern that a recent programme on state television produced by the military had called for alternative service to be comprised exclusively of non-combatant involvement in the armed forces.

CRA official Astsatryan, however, stated to Keston that no law on alternative service is even in preparation, while claiming that the government retains its intention to produce one. He expressed concern that the introduction of alternative service would encourage more young men to become conscientious objectors, and so jeopardise the security of the republic's population of some three million. In this respect, he partially confirmed Gillies' suspicion that the authorities fear that 'a whole generation will grow up to become Jehovah's Witnesses'. (END)