ARMENIA: Jehovah's Witnesses and OSCE Welcome Acquittal.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 7 March 2002

Armenia's Jehovah's Witness community has welcomed the decision of the Appeal Court in Yerevan today (7 March) to uphold the not guilty verdict handed down to Levon Markaryan last September by the regional court in the town of Armavir near Yerevan. "The appeal court found that his religious teaching as one of Jehovah's Witnesses is not criminal and is protected by the guarantees of freedom of religion in the Constitution of Armenia," a Jehovah's Witness statement declared. Roy Reeve, the head of the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who was present in court, also welcomed the ruling. "Clearly I'm pleased by the verdict," he told Keston News Service from Yerevan, "but as we said last September it is a pity the case was ever brought in the first place."

Markaryan, a 50-year-old father of four who works at the Medzamor nuclear power station, was reported by the Jehovah's Witnesses as being visibly relieved when listening to the decision, which came after three months of appeal hearings. "I am happy that the Court came to this just decision. Hopefully this will help us in our continuing efforts to register our religious organisation in Armenia."

The investigation of Markaryan under Article 244 - which punishes leaders of religious groups "whose activity, carried on under the guise of preaching religious doctrines and performing religious rituals, is connected with causing harm to citizens' health or with other infringements of the person and rights of citizens" with a prison sentence of up to five years - began in November 2000 over the presence of minors at religious meetings he conducted and the refusal of young male Jehovah's Witnesses to serve in the military. Backed by the National Security Ministry (the successor to the KGB), the prosecutor's office brought charges against Markaryan in March 2001. However, at his trial last September he was found not guilty by Judge Manvel Simonyan, though prosecutors lodged an appeal (see KNS 11 October 2001).

Razmik Markossian, chairman of the State Council on Religious Affairs (which is in the process of being wound up), denied to Keston on 7 March that his agency had had any involvement in Markaryan's unsuccessful prosecution (despite evidence presented at the original hearing last September that pointed to a close connection). He declined to comment on the verdict, saying he had not yet received news of it.

Markossian also declined to comment on whether it was time for Armenia to remove the Khrushchev-era article of the Criminal Code under which prosecutors had attempted to imprison Markaryan. "We haven't recommended this, but it is a decision for the government." Reeve was adamant, though. "It should disappear," he told Keston. "This article does not appear in the new version of the criminal code which is due to be approved by the current session of parliament."

It remains unclear whether Markaryan's final acquittal will help the registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim more than 7,000 adherents in Armenia. They were repeatedly denied registration by the old State Council, though Markossian claimed to Keston that the Jehovah's Witnesses had not lodged a new registration application since he took up his post as State Council chairman in July 2000. However, since the government decreed on 1 March that the State Council is to be abolished and its functions transferred to the government executive, registration of religious organisations has been transferred to the Ministry of Justice. "Although other functions will be transferred to the government over the next two months," Markossian told Keston, "responsibility for registration has already been transferred away from us."

Reeve told Keston that the OSCE has been working with the Ministry of Justice and the prosecutor's office to speed up the adoption of an alternative service law (one of Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe), the registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the resolution of the Markaryan case. "These three are very closely linked. We have had discussions in the last three weeks to resolve these issues." (END)