ARMENIA: 'Spirit of Khrushchev' to Persist in Criminal Code?

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 April 2002

In the wake of the Cassation Court ruling today (19 April) vindicating Jehovah's Witness Levon Markaryan (see separate KNS article), a senior official of the Justice Ministry has told Keston News Service from the Armenian capital Yerevan that once the new criminal code has been adopted - which he believes will take place this year - further such prosecutions will be impossible. "Prosecutors were able to try to imprison Markaryan because of the old criminal code," Hayk Khemchyan, head of the Division for Legal and International Relations of the ministry's Criminal-Executive Department, told Keston on 19 April. "The article they used no longer appears in the current drafts of the new code." However, a close analysis of proposed new Article 174 in the government's draft of the new criminal code shows striking echoes of the old Article 244 under which the attempted prosecution of Markaryan took place. "I see no meaningful difference between the old 244 and the new 174," Jeremy Gunn, an advisor on religious liberty to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Keston on 19 April from the United States.

The proposed Article 174 in the government's draft, as passed to Keston by Khemchyan, declares: "Establishment or leadership of a religious or non-governmental association, whose activities are accompanied with infliction of damage to the health of citizens, or with other encroachments on the rights of citizens or the individual, as well as impelling citizens to reject their civil duties, is punished with a fine in the amount of 200-fold to 400-fold minimal [monthly] salaries, or with arrest for the term of up to 6 months."

This compares with Article 244 of the old code, which punished 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.

"The principal problem is in the enforcement of such laws," declared Gunn, senior fellow for religion and human rights at Emory University and a member of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom. "They are not applied in a neutral manner to respond to serious abuses, but they are used to target unpopular groups. In a Catholic country, for example, they would be used against Jehovah's Witnesses for their medical practices, but not against the Catholic Church for faith healing or miraculous waters."

Although many other post-Soviet republics have abolished articles from the old Soviet criminal code equivalent to Armenia's Article 244, Gunn points out that "unfortunately, it is not particularly unusual for criminal codes or religion statutes to have provisions similar to the new 174". He believes the wording is often deliberately designed to obscure their true purpose. "Such provisions are typically written in 'neutral' language, which allows their supporters to say 'what could be wrong with this?'"

An official of the OSCE office in Yerevan, which is monitoring the process of drawing up a new criminal code and how it conforms to international democratic norms, told Keston on 19 April that in the reform Armenia aims to exclude "outdated concepts" from the Soviet period. He declared that controversial Article 244 is due to be removed. However, the official noted that it is unclear when the final draft will be completed and presented to parliament, the National Assembly.

Khemchyan told Keston that there are two drafts of the criminal code, one prepared by the government and one by the National Assembly, though he said the versions were "not so different". He reported that another article in the government's draft, Article 172, also deals with religion: "Hindrance to implementation of religious ceremonies or legal activities of religious organizations, is punished with a fine in the amount of up to 200-fold [minimal monthly salary], or with arrest for the term of up to 3 months."

Given the closeness of Article 174 to the old Article 244, Keston asked Khemchyan whether the new article is likely to be used like the old against Jehovah's Witnesses, especially given that many prosecutors and other state officials do not like them. "I don't think so," he responded. "I hope it will be impossible." (END)