ARMENIA: Prosecutors Fail in Attempt to Imprison Jehovah's Witness.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 April 2002

Armenia's Jehovah's Witness community has welcomed the ruling today (19 April) vindicating Jehovah's Witness Levon Markaryan. A six-member panel of judges at the Cassation Court in the Armenian capital Yerevan unanimously rejected prosecutors' appeals to have Markaryan's acquittals by two lower courts overturned. "The prosecutors spoke in court today still wanting Markaryan to be prosecuted," an official of the Yerevan office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who was present in court told Keston News Service on 19 April. "However, the judges ruled in Markaryan's favour." The Cassation Court is the highest court and its ruling cannot be appealed. "This was the court of last instance. That's it," the OSCE official declared.

For the past year and a half, prosecutors have been trying to imprison Markaryan under Article 244, a provision that dates back to the anti-religious persecutions of the Khrushchev era in the early 1960s punishing 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.

He 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, but which the prosecutors appealed to the Cassation Court.

The Jehovah's Witnesses report that Markaryan was visibly relieved as the Court read the ruling. "I'm happy that this year and a half ordeal has finally come to an end," he declared, adding that he, his wife and children can now carry on with their lives and religious activity in peace. "I hope this ruling serves as a precedent protecting the Constitutional rights and freedoms of other Jehovah's Witnesses as well as all citizens of Armenia."

Although Armenia is in the middle of a reform of the criminal code to exclude what an OSCE official has described as "outdated concepts" from the Soviet period to be removed, there is concern that an article replacing Article 244 retains much of the spirit of the old (see separate KNS article).

Nor have the Jehovah's Witnesses - who have repeatedly been refused state registration - yet achieved equal rights with other faiths. Their latest registration application awaits an "expert conclusion" before the Justice Ministry will consider it (see KNS 17 April 2002). In addition, local officials continue to put pressure on Jehovah's Witnesses. "We should point out that more than 40 people have officially been cautioned in the last three years by the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office about their illegal religious activities," the Yerevan-based news agency Arminfo noted on 19 April in its report of Markaryan's acquittal. "The overwhelming majority of these people are Jehovah's Witnesses." Twenty Jehovah's Witnesses remain in prison for refusing compulsory military service. (END)