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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

ARMENIA: "A kind of theatrical farce - I see no progress"

Human rights defenders and some religious communities have expressed concern over provisions of a proposed new Religion Law and amendments to the Law on the State and the Armenian Church, and to the Criminal and Administrative Codes. They told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns over: the ban on "soul-hunting", defined as "improper proselytism", which could be punished by up to two months' imprisonment (up to two years' if done by more than one person); compulsory religious registration for communities of more than 25 adults; and vague formulations which some religious communities fear could be used against them. The Justice Ministry published the drafts on 12 July. "These proposed amendments are repressive and a lot worse than the previous version," Stepan Danielyan of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre told Forum 18. But Russian Orthodox priest Fr Arseni Grigoryants welcomed the drafts' "harsh attitude to incidents of proselytism" and "attempts to provide [juridical] mechanisms" to punish them.

ARMENIA: "It would have ended badly, for them and for us"

Armenia's religious minorities face barriers to their exercising freedom of religion or belief from senior officials, politicians, media outlets and priests of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church, several communities have told Forum 18 News Service. Owners of two separate venues, forced to cancel contracts with Jehovah's Witnesses in June, have told Forum 18 that they did so unwillingly after facing "pressure". One stated 18 that: "It would have ended badly, for them [Jehovah's Witnesses] and for us. If the meeting had gone ahead, state structures would have become involved." Also the criminal trial of a Pentecostal Pastor Vladimir Bagdasaryan, whose colleagues insist he should never have been prosecuted, nears its end in the central town of Sevan. Bagdasaryan told Forum 18 that the Prosecutor stated that he should be fined and then amnestied. "But this means I'll still be regarded as guilty and have a criminal record," he complained. Both the Collaboration For Democracy Centre and the Helsinki Committee of Armenia have documented numerous instances of official and media intolerance, leading to denials of freedom of religion or belief.

ARMENIA: European Court finds conscientious objector was wrongfully convicted and jailed – but what will government do?

The European Court of Human Rights has today (7 July) published a Grand Chamber judgment finding that Armenia violated Vahan Bayatyan's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness, was imprisoned from September 2002 to July 2003 for refusal on grounds of conscience to perform compulsory military service. Armenia currently has 69 prisoners of conscience – all Jehovah's Witnesses – in jail for refusing conscription. Armenian officials gave only cautious responses to the verdict to Forum 18 News Service, but Jehovah's Witnesses noted to Forum 18 that it should both lead to the prisoners of conscience being freed, and "help our fellow believers who are facing the same issue in Azerbaijan and Turkey". Armenia claims amendments to the Alternative Service Law now in Parliament will take the current alternative service out of the control of the military. But the wording of the amendments is unclear and does not unambiguously state this. Lieutenant Colonel Sasun Simonyan, who was involved in preparing the amendments, told Forum 18 that – as at present - anyone doing alternative service who violated their terms of service would be dealt with by the Military Prosecutor's Office.

ARMENIA: Pastor prosecuted after journalists refuse to leave church

Following false claims in the Armenian media that an alleged murderer in Sevan is a Jehovah's Witness, a Pentecostal Pastor faces criminal trial for "obstructing the lawful professional activities of a journalist". Priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church took a Shant TV crew to the Pentecostal Church in Sevan. The TV crew did not seek permission to enter private property where the Church meets, and refused to leave when asked, so the Pastor then tried to stop them filming. After the TV station broadcast a report claiming that the Pastor attacked journalists, a criminal investigation was opened. Police refused to tell Pastor Bagdasaryan what was "lawful" about the journalists' activities. The Yerevan Press Club told Forum 18 that prosecutors are not usually so quick to defend journalists and start criminal proceedings. Asked by Forum 18 whether any journalist has the right to come into Shant TV's private property and to film, a Shant TV journalist told Forum 18: "That is not the same situation". Also, Armenian Justice Minister Hrair Tovmasyan has promised that controversial draft legal amendments will be re-drafted. However, a Ministry spokeswoman would not tell Forum 18 whether re-drafted amendments would be made available for public discussion before, after, or at the same time as they are sent to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for review.

ARMENIA: "Why does the government keep pushing laws that get negative reviews?"

Nora Sargsyan of Armenia's Justice Ministry has stated that draft Amendments restricting freedom of religion or belief will be changed to reflect the recommendations of a Council of Europe / Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) legal review. This found that the Amendments do not comply with international human rights law. However, Vardan Astsatryan of the Ethnic Minorities and Religious Affairs Department claimed "the draft Amendments were in accordance with international human rights standards". Many human rights defenders and religious communities are concerned at what Pastor Ren̩ Leonian described as "limitations on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression of our faith and limitation on human rights generally". Stepan Danielyan of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre thinks the Amendments "had the strong backing of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisyan". But, "why does the government keep pushing laws in this area that get negative reviews?" Maria Aghajanyan of the Open Society Foundations asked. Danielyan and Aghajanyan are organising a civil society-government round table "to get the government talking Рthis is a question of transparency", Aghajanyan told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: Growing concern over proposed legislative changes on religion

Human rights defenders and religious communities have harshly criticised proposed amendments to several Laws imposing new restrictions on and punishments for religious activity. The state would conduct a "theological expert examination" before granting registration to religious communities, while those that fail to provide full information about all their activities could be liquidated. Sharing faith is a particular target, with penalties for violations of up to three months' imprisonment. "If adopted, they will create two kinds of citizens in Armenia Рthose of the Armenian Apostolic Church on one side, and then the rest," Pastor Ren̩ Leonian of the Evangelical Church told Forum 18 News Service. "It is difficult for us to accept in an independent and democratic state that there can be two classes of citizen." The amendments, prepared by the Justice Ministry, only became known when placed on the Council of Europe's Venice Commission website on 30 November. "Such secrecy and silence is unacceptable," Larisa Minasyan of Armenia's Open Society Foundation told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: 73 religious prisoners, but will proposed amendments help?

As of 1 December, 73 Jehovah's Witness young men were serving prison sentences for refusing military service or military-controlled alternative service on grounds of conscience, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. All but one are serving terms of between two and three years' imprisonment. Six or seven more await trial. Lieutenant-Colonel Sasun Simonyan, Deputy Head of the Defence Ministry's Legal Directorate, told Forum 18 that amendments to the 2003 Law on Alternative Service his Ministry prepared are now with the Justice Ministry for review. He claimed the so-far unpublished amendments would ensure civilian control over alternative service. But he then said the Defence Ministry would be one of three ministries exercising control and if those doing the service commit criminal offences, they would be investigated by the Military Prosecutor's Office. "For the alternative service to be acceptable, there must be zero involvement of the Defence Ministry," Avetik Ishkhanyan, head of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, told Forum 18. "It sounds like this will be a step forward, but may not fully resolve the problem."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: One year in prison for refusing military oath

Armen Mirzoyan, a young Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment on 30 June for refusing to swear the military oath and handle weapons during his compulsory military service, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. "Why has he been sentenced for following the Bible?" his brother Gagik – who had been imprisoned on the same charges by the same judge - told Forum 18. "I asked the officials why they treat Christians like this, and they responded that they follow the laws of Karabakh and no-one can tell them what to do," their mother Anna told Forum 18. Meanwhile, police confiscated religious literature from members of Revival Fire Evangelical Church returning to Karabakh from Armenia. Raids and fines on Protestant Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses continue. "Citizens are free to select their religion and worship," Deputy Foreign Minister Vardan Barsegyan claimed to Forum 18.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united"

Fines today (27 April) on four Protestants bring to nine the number of religious believers punished so far for unregistered religious worship in Nagorno-Karabakh, the internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service. More fines are likely. The fines follow eight police raids on worship services of Adventists, Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses since February. "All religious organisations must have registration before they start to meet – it's the law," Deputy Police Chief Mkhitar Grigoryan told Forum 18, without admitting that two of these communities were denied registration. Karabakh's religious affairs official Ashot Sargsyan explained to the Adventists the government's attitude to smaller religious communities: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united".

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined"

Jehovah's Witnesses in the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the south Caucasus, have lost a legal challenge to the entity's refusal to grant them legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learned. An appeal to the entity's Supreme Court may be made. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs vigorously defended to Forum 18 denial of registration to Jehovah's Witnesses and a local Protestant Church. Sargsyan said that, without registration, individual believers have the right to conduct religious activity – such as to pray - alone at home. But he said neither of the two groups can meet together as a community, even in private. "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined," Sargsyan pledged. Both groups have told Forum 18 that low-profile meetings are not currently being obstructed.