ARMENIA: Another Jehovah's Witness Imprisoned.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 18 September 2002

As Armenia continues to ignore its Council of Europe obligation to free all imprisoned conscientious objectors ahead of the introduction of a law on alternative service, yet another Jehovah's Witness has been given a prison sentence for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. Artur Kazaryan was today (18 September) sentenced by Vanadzor city court to one year's imprisonment, Jehovah's Witness sources in the Armenian capital Yerevan told Keston News Service. Hratch Keshishyan, the head of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia, told Keston that Kazaryan's conviction brought to 23 the number of Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing military service. Another two have been arrested and will soon face trial.

Kazaryan's sentence came exactly a week after another Jehovah's Witness was brought to court. Hratch Tatoyan was sentenced in Yerevan on 11 September to two years' imprisonment on charges of "refusing the call-up to military service" (Article 75 part 1 of the Criminal Code). At his trial at the court of Yerevan's Arabkir district, judge Eduard Abrahamyan sentenced Tatoyan despite the fact that after receiving his call-up papers, the Jehovah's Witness had gone of his own free will on 15 August to the procuracy of Arabkir district to deliver a statement about his reasons for refusing to serve in the armed forces. He was immediately arrested.

Despite protests from the Jehovah's Witness community about the refusal to free imprisoned conscientious objectors, the authorities have continued routinely to arrest and imprison them. Ara Sarapelian, spokesman for the justice ministry, told Keston he was unaware of any commitment to free imprisoned conscientious objectors. "By next year we are committed to adopting a law on alternative service and we will meet that commitment," he told Keston from Yerevan on 18 September. "Until then the current law says that those who refuse to do military service should be punished. It is right that we should abide by this."

This view was echoed by officials of the foreign ministry dealing with the Council of Europe. "It is not a violation of the Council of Europe to imprison conscientious objectors until the new law is adopted," Lilit Danekhian, head of the Council of Europe division at the foreign ministry told Keston on 18 September. She said the Ministry of Defence had issued an unpublished order several months ago allowing those who refuse to bear arms to do non-combat service within the army. "The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitoring committee experts who were in Yerevan this month were informed of this new order," she reported.

Her boss, Samvel Mkrtchyan, head of the department for links with European organisations, told Keston that some conscientious objectors had already been freed in an amnesty, but denied that continuing to imprison them violated Council of Europe commitments. He described the Defence Ministry order as a "first step" to a new law. "But in the absence of the new law, the people who refuse to serve in the army should be punished in accordance with current law." He complained that if a new law were adopted, many young men would try to evade their duty to defend the country by claiming to be Jehovah's Witnesses. "Many young men are looking for a loophole, a way not to serve," he complained. "Probably not all those in prison are real Jehovah's Witnesses."

Both Danekhian and Mkrtchyan said they had not heard any complaints from Council of Europe officials about the practice of continuing to imprison conscientious objectors.

Keshishyan said the Jehovah's Witness community was "very disappointed" by what he believed was a change of attitude by the Council of Europe. "When we met their representatives in Yerevan at the beginning of September they expressed surprise that our members were not prepared to perform the non-combat service now being offered within the army," he told Keston. "When we explained that we don't just want our members not to take up arms but want them to conduct a completely civilian alternative service they just shrugged their shoulders."

Speaking to Keston over the past twenty months, since Armenia joined the Council of Europe and pledged itself to free those imprisoned for refusing military service on grounds of conscience, Council of Europe officials have repeatedly declared that Armenia's policy of continuing to imprison objectors violated the letter and spirit of its obligations. This view was repeated by Krzysztof Zyman of the human rights directorate of the Council of Europe, who deals with the South Caucasus countries. He denied that the Council of Europe had softened its position on Armenia's obligations. "Continuing to imprison conscientious objectors is clearly in violation of Armenia's commitments," he told Keston from Strasbourg on 18 September. "The Council of Europe is taking many measures that you do not see. This issue is constantly raised in the Committee of Ministers and whenever we meet Armenian officials. We are permanently in discussion with them about this." He noted that Armenia's respect for its commitments would be subject to a debate and vote in the Parliamentary Assembly on 26 September.

Zyman said the Armenian authorities should adopt the alternative service law as soon as possible, pointing out that the Council of Europe has minimum standards for such laws. "We received a letter from the Armenian government at the end of August saying that the law is in the final stage of development." He said Armenia would submit the law to the Council of Europe to see if it meets Council of Europe standards. "If we do not like it we will give a negative assessment and this will be passed on to the Armenian authorities." (END)