ARMENIA: No let-up in Jehovah's Witness sentences
With ten Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors sentenced to terms of between one and two years since the new Criminal Code came into force on 1 August and another expecting to be tried around 25 October, the special representative in Armenia of the Council of Europe secretary general says such continuing sentencing violates Armenia's commitments to end the practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors. "All the conscientious objectors should have been freed in line with Armenia's commitments back in January 2001, when it joined the Council of Europe," Natalia Voutova told Forum 18 News Service. But Narine Nikolian, Armenia's deputy representative to the Council of Europe, denied this, insisting to Forum 18 that no-one can be released from what she claimed is their constitutional obligation until a new alternative service law is adopted.
Krzysztof Zyman of the Council of Europe's Directorate General of Human Rights is equally clear. "The Armenian government's practice of continuing to imprison conscientious objectors is a violation of the commitments to the Council of Europe Armenia took on when it joined in January 2001," he told Forum 18 from Strasbourg on 8 October.
However, Narine Nikolian, Armenia's deputy representative to the Council of Europe, vigorously denied this. "There were several amnesties and those who were imprisoned when Armenia joined were pardoned and freed," she told Forum 18 from Strasbourg on 7 October. "Those in prison now are different people."
She insisted that Armenia's constitution, which declares in Article 47 "Every citizen shall participate in the defence of the Republic of Armenia in a manner prescribed by law", currently requires young Armenian men to conduct military service and overrides any international commitment. She maintained that the continued sentencing of conscientious objectors cannot end until a new alternative service law is adopted. Parliament has just adopted such a law in a text that does not meet Council of Europe recommendations.
The ten new Jehovah's Witness prisoners were sentenced under Article 327, part 1, of the new criminal code which declares: "Evading a recurring call to emergency military service, or educational or military training, without a legal basis for being relieved of this service, shall incur a fine in the amount of 300 to 500 minimum [monthly] wages or arrest for up to two months or imprisonment for up to two years."
First to be sentenced under the new article was Edgar Saroyan on 7 August, who received a two year sentence and is now in labour camp at Kosh near the town of Ashtarak. In quick succession came the sentencing of David Sahakyan (2 years), Artur Torosyan (1.5 years), Jora Keropyan (2 years), Mikael Manvelyan (2 years), Pavel Sarkisyan (1.5 years), Artur Kocharyan (1 year), Hracha Sarkisyan (1 year) and Mihran Unanyan (1.5 years). The most recent trial was of Andranik Mavetsyan, sentenced on 24 September to one year's imprisonment and now in labour camp at Nubarashen near Yerevan. While nine of the new prisoners are being held in labour camps, Kocharyan has not been imprisoned, but has been required to sign an undertaking not to leave his home.
These new prisoners join thirteen who are still serving sentences for refusing military service on religious grounds under the old criminal code. A further three - Artyom Kazaryan, Kevork Chatyan and Ishkhan Namunts – are awaiting trial. Rustam Khachatryan, a lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses, told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 9 October that judge Nelli Kasparyan of Abovian regional court had said two days earlier that Namunts' trial is due to take place sometime around 25 or 27 October.
There are also seven other Jehovah's Witnesses who have been released early from their prison sentences but who are still under arrest in their homes. They have to report regularly to the local police and cannot leave their home town without permission until the end of their sentences.
Official figures put the number of conscientious objectors sentenced in the last three years at 150, the majority of them Jehovah's Witnesses.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.
8 July 2003
As the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance condemned Armenia for continuing to imprison Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors and deny the group registration, a court in Alaverdi sentenced Araik Bedjanyan on 2 July to one and a half years in labour camp for refusing military service. Now 24 Jehovah's Witnesses are serving sentences, while a further eight – two of them arrested on 3 July – await trial. Hovhannes Asyryan of the presidential human rights commission told Forum 18 News Service he was optimistic that parliament would adopt a new alternative service law this autumn in line with its commitment to the Council of Europe, but Jehovah's Witness lawyer Rustam Khachatryan was sceptical. "The authorities promise a lot but never fulfil their promises."
25 April 2003
Human rights activists, the Baptists and the Jehovah's Witnesses have criticised a secret order issued by the head of the police service last December banning members of religious minorities from working for the police. "This order is unconstitutional and violates human rights," Mikael Danielian of the Helsinki Association told Forum 18 News Service. "We regard this order as very negative," Asatur Nahapetyan, general secretary of the Baptist Union, declared. Drew Holiner, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer who defended Zemfira Voskanyan sacked earlier this year from the police for her faith, agreed. "It is clearly discriminatory," he told Forum 18. "It requires dismissal in pretty unambiguous terms of those who belong to other groups than the Armenian Apostolic Church." Forum 18 has been unable to obtain the text of the secret order and has not found any official prepared to discuss why religious minorities cannot serve in the police.