KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 12 December 2000

ABKHAZIA: FOUR YEAR SENTENCE FOR JEHOVAH'S WITNESS. A
Jehovah's Witness in Abkhazia has been sentenced to four years' imprisonment
in a strict regime labour camp for desertion from the army, after being
conscripted against his will. The charge against Jehovah's Witness
conscientious objectors up until now has been evasion of military service,
which carries a penalty of a shorter custodial sentence in a less harsh regime
camp.

ABKHAZIA: FOUR YEAR SENTENCE FOR JEHOVAH'S WITNESS

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

A Jehovah's Witness in the self-declared Republic of Abkhazia on the Black
Sea has been sentenced to four years' imprisonment in a strict regime labour
camp for desertion from the army, after being conscripted against his will. The
charge against Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors up until now has
been evasion of military service, which carries a penalty of a shorter custodial
sentence in a less harsh regime camp.

Military service for all males between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory in
Abkhazia, with compulsory reserve service until the age of 60. Abkhazia's
1994 Constitution does not provide for an alternative to military service,
although article 11 states that Abkhazia recognises and guarantees the rights
and freedoms upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other
international human rights agreements (to which Abkhazia, as an unrecognised
entity, is not eligible to become a state party).

Elgudzha Tsulaya, who is 18, refused to report for military service at the
drafting office in the town of Tkvarchel on grounds of conscience. From 17-30
May he was held under arrest in Tkvarchel and on 30 May was forced to report
to the drafting office. The following day he left the office and lodged a
complaint about his treatment to the regional procuracy. No action was taken
over his complaint and on 10 August Tsulaya was accused of desertion and
immediately arrested. On 17 October the Military Court handed down the four
year sentence. On 21 November the criminal case review board at the Supreme
Court, chaired by deputy chairman Gennady Stepanov, rejected Tsulaya's
appeal.

The head of the military court that sentenced Tsulaya, Judge Roman Mushba,
defended the ruling. `He was not convicted for his religious belief but for
avoiding military service,' he declared from the Abkhaz capital Sukhum on 1
December.

The Russian Jehovah's Witness lawyer Artur Leontiev, who represented
Tsulaya in court, told Keston News Service on 24 November that the Supreme
Court did not act in accordance with the conclusions of the chairman of the
parliamentary legal committee, Tamaz Ketsba, who had given evidence in
court as a legal specialist. He had explained that the court should be governed
by the Constitution, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cited in the
Constitution and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mushba confirmed that Abkhazia's parliamentary legal committee is currently
examining a draft law on alternatives to military service, which he claimed
would ultimately benefit Tsulaya. `I would think that during the time he is in
prison they will make a law for alternative service and we will take another
look at his case,' Mushba said. `That way the problem will be solved.'

According to Leontiev, this is the first case in which a Jehovah's Witness,
despite his refusal to perform military service on religious grounds, has been
forced to report to the drafting office and has then been subjected to a trumped-
up charge of desertion. This demonstrates that the authorities are likely in the
future to impose stricter penalties on conscientious objectors.

The Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba issued a decree in 1995 banning the
Jehovah's Witnesses because its members refuse to perform military service.
Despite this, Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate they currently have about
1,000 active members in Abkhazia. Since the ban about 30 draft-age members
have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army. (END)