ARMENIA: Jehovah's Witnesses Hail 'Great Victory'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 September 2001

Some 300 Jehovah's Witnesses gathered outside the courtroom in the town of Armavir applauded loudly as they heard the news of the acquittal yesterday morning (18 September) of one of the leaders of their community in Medzamor, Levon Markaryan. In a ruling delivered orally, Judge Mamvel Simonyan declared Markaryan not guilty of the charge of `infringement of the person and rights of citizens under the guise of performing religious rituals' under Article 244 Part I of the Criminal Code (see KNS 11 September 2001). 'We won! This is excellent news,' Markaryan's lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Keston News Service from Yerevan in the wake of the ruling. 'It is a great victory for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia.' However, the prosecutors have vowed to appeal.

Markaryan declared that the acquittal had been 'justified'. 'We are pleased that justice prevailed,' he told Keston from Yerevan. 'The judge acted well, in accordance both with the law and with his conscience.' Markaryan said he is considering demanding compensation from the authorities over the long-running case, although he has not yet decided whether to pursue this. 'This whole case began on 22 November last year -almost a year ago.' A 50-year-old father of four, Markaryan says he has not encountered any problems as a result of the case at the Medzamor nuclear power station where he works.

Although given orally, the verdict is due in writing in five days' time. Asked how the prosecutors and other state officials had reacted to the not guilty verdict, Khachatryan declared: 'I am sure they knew about the judgement before it was handed down. The chief prosecutor in the case, Sedrak Minasyan, wasn't even in court.' One of the prosecutors, Karlen Hovhanisyan, has already told local journalists the prosecution will appeal against the verdict to a higher court in Yerevan. Any appeal will have to be lodged within fifteen days.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) welcomed the verdict and expressed hope that a new draft law on alternative military service would prevent similar prosecutions. 'The verdict demonstrates a commitment on the part of the judiciary to defend an individual's right to freedom of religion and conscience,' the OSCE office in Yerevan declared in a statement. 'Such a commitment is to be applauded.'

Khachatryan attributed the acquittal to the publicity given to the case against Markaryan, especially Keston News Service's reports. 'We know for certain that these reports helped,' he declared. 'The officials feared this publicity.'

Article 244 was introduced into Armenia's criminal code in the early 1960s, during the anti-religious persecution instituted by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Although it has been abolished in many former Soviet republics, it has survived into Armenia's new criminal code. It has been used only twice in Armenia, once in the 1960s and once in 1986 against a group of Pentecostal Christians. (END)