ARMENIA: Prosecutors' Last-Ditch Attempt to Imprison Jehovah's Witness.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 April 2002

Jehovah's Witness Levon Markaryan will learn on Friday morning (19 April) if the prosecutors' last ditch attempt to have him imprisoned for his religious activity is successful, his lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Keston News Service on 17 April. A five-member panel of judges at the Cassation Court in the Armenian capital Yerevan is to give its verdict on the prosecutors' appeal against two earlier court rulings acquitting Markaryan of breaking the law (see KNS 21 March 2002). An official of the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - which has more than once criticised prosecutors' attempts to imprison Markaryan on charges dating back to the anti-religious persecution of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev - told Keston on 17 April that it would once again be present in court. "We'll be there," the official confirmed.

In a case backed by the National Security Ministry and the former State Council on Religious Affairs (which is now being wound up), prosecutors have been trying to punish Markaryan, a 50-year-old father of four who works at the Medzamor nuclear power station, on charges that date back to the anti-religious persecutions of the Khrushchev era in the early 1960s. Article 244 - which is due to be excluded from the new criminal code now being adopted - 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.

Markaryan was found not guilty at his trial last September at the regional court in the town of Armavir near Yerevan, though prosecutors lodged an appeal. This verdict was upheld by the Appeal Court in Yerevan on 7 March, a decision welcomed by the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Yerevan office of the OSCE.

The Cassation Court is the highest appeal court in Armenia, so this hearing represents the last chance the prosecutors - Koryun Peiloyan and Avak Avakian of the country's general procuracy - have to see Markaryan imprisoned under the present case. The judges meet in private to reach a decision and the court hearing will largely consist of the result being handed down.

Khachatryan told Keston that although he had no idea which way the hearing would go, he was optimistic that the court would vindicate Markaryan. He added that Markaryan "feels very good". Hratch Keshishyan, leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia, told Keston from Yerevan on 17 April that he too did not know what the result would be. "We hope they will reach the right decision."

Meanwhile, Keshishyan reported that the Justice Ministry has responded to an application for registration submitted by the Yerevan Jehovah's Witness community at the beginning of April. "Since the Council on Religious Affairs has been abolished, we submitted the application to both the Ministry of Justice and the government," he told Keston. Tigran Mukuchyan, the deputy justice minister and head of the state registry, responded to the community on 8 April that an "expert conclusion" on the Jehovah's Witnesses is required before the application can proceed.

Mukuchyan told Keston by telephone on 17 April that "basically" all the other documents submitted in the application were correct. "There are just a few minor mistakes that can be corrected in the consideration process." He denied that there would be any artificial obstacles to registration of a Jehovah's Witness community and denied any knowledge of the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses have repeatedly been refused registration as a religious community over the past decade. "We only look at whether the documents are in accordance with the law," he pledged. "We do not bring any other issues into consideration."

He said that since the abolition of the Council on Religious Affairs, the task of providing the expert conclusion - which is required for all faiths applying for registration - now lies with the government. He said this conclusion should be handed out within ten days, and that his ministry then has up to a month to rule on registration.

Asked whether the Jehovah's Witnesses will finally achieve registration, Mukuchyan declined to make any predictions. "If all their documents are in order, they will get it. They know the demands of the law very well." Keshishyan too was cautious. "We haven't yet had a reply to our application from the government. We will wait and see what their response is." He confirmed that at present individual Jehovah's Witness congregations are not experiencing pressure from the local authorities or the police. (END)