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ARMENIA: New wave of Jehovah's Witness sentences

Five young Jehovah's Witnesses are known to have been imprisoned for refusing military service so far in March, the largest number in a single month since last October and in continuing defiance of Armenia's commitment to the Council of Europe to end imprisonment of conscientious objectors. One, Arman Agazaryan, a 28-year-old dentist, is the only breadwinner in his extended family of six, his lawyer Rustam Khachatryan told Forum 18 News Service. Khachatryan also complains of the treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses who have opted for the alternative military service, saying they remain under military control, have to serve far longer than those in the army and are banned from joining their fellow Jehovah's Witnesses for worship. There is no civilian alternative service.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "Inhuman" sentence on religious conscientious objector

Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan has been jailed for four years, by a court in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, for refusing to do military service – even though he stated that he would do alternative, non-military, service. Lieutenant-General Seyran Ohanyan, the Defence Minister, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that "it doesn't depend on me – according to our law of Nagorno-Karabakh there is no alternative service, so they are sentenced in line with the law." But General Ohanyan noted that, in individual cases, provision has been made for religious conscientious objectors to do military service in non-combat roles. He quoted the case of a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused to fight in the army despite pressure from the Armenian Apostolic Church's military chaplain. "He is now serving (..) without arms and without swearing the military oath. Otherwise he's doing everything the other conscripts do. He's now content." Baptist sources, who preferred not to be identified, confirmed to Forum 18 that Mirzoyan was happy with his terms of service.

ARMENIA: Religious conscientious objector forcibly taken to Nagorno-Karabakh

Armen Grigoryan, a religious conscientious objector who is seriously contemplating becoming a Jehovah's Witness, has been forcibly taken by the Armenian authorities from Armenia to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. After he was beaten up, Grigoryan was forced to stand in his underwear in front of about 1,800 soldiers to tell them why he refused to do military service. "He told everyone present that his rejection was based on his religious beliefs and his study of the Bible," his father told Forum 18. This is the first instance known to Forum 18 of an Armenian religious conscientious objector being forcibly taken to a military unit in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has repeatedly broken its promises to the Council of Europe on the treatment of conscientious objectors. Grigoryan has now escaped from the military and has written to the Armenian authorities from his hiding place, to say that he is prepared to do alternative civilian service.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Did Armenian priest beat Baptist conscientious objector?

An Armenian Apostolic Church military chaplain, Fr Petros Yezegyan, has vehemently denied to Forum 18 News Service that he beat up a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan, who refused on religious grounds to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic's army. Fr Yezegyan admitted talking to Mirzoyan for some hours, and Baptist sources have told Forum 18 that "for the final hour and a half the priest beat the brother so badly that blood flowed from his nose and mouth". Baptists have also stated that this was the second beating Mirzoyan received, the first being by a unit commander who assaulted him after he refused to abandon his faith and to serve in the army. Relatives have been refused information on where Mirzoyan currently is, and the Defence Ministry would only tell Forum 18 that he "is still alive."

AZERBAIJAN: Jailed for sharing faith, "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members".

One Baha'i, Tavachur Aliyev, has been jailed for ten days, allegedly for not obeying the police, but really for sharing his faith, Baha'i sources have told Forum 18 News Service. Forum 18 has also been told that 18 Muslims were also jailed for two weeks, on charges of giving "non-constructive teaching" and "creating tensions between family members". The imprisonments took place during a fresh crackdown on religious activity in the exclave of Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), between Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Other religious communities such as the Seventh-day Adventists have also suffered at the hands of the authorities, who deny that religious persecution takes place in the exclave, and also decline to talk to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Why are religious communities in Nakhichevan "crushed"?

Adventist leaders have told Forum 18 News Service that their community in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), an exclave between Armenia, Turkey and Iran, has been "crushed," and the police have banned them from meeting. Baha'is have told Forum 18 that "we can't do anything in Nakhichevan," and the imprisonment of one Baha'i and 18 Muslim imams has been reported. Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 that "in Nakhichevan officials are more open about persecution than elsewhere." This opinion was backed by Professor Ali Abasov, president of the Azerbaijani branch of the International Religious Liberty Association, who said that "there is no democracy, no free media and no human rights in Nakhichevan." Asked by Forum 18 why, he responded with a grim laugh: "The authorities don't want it," insisting that the Nakhichevan authorities are doing what the authorities in the rest of Azerbaijan would like to do. The authorities have repeatedly denied any religious persecution and have declined to talk to Forum 18.

ARMENIA: Promises broken by continuing jailing of prisoners of conscience

This month (October), five Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to jail terms for their conscientious objection, on religious grounds, to military service. A sixth prisoner of conscience has been given a lesser sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The number of imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses has been brought to thirteen by these sentences, with a further two awaiting trial on the same charges. The continued sentencing and detention of religious prisoners of conscience clearly violates Armenia's previous promises to free its religious prisoners, and to introduce alternative civilian service. The Armenian Foreign Ministry declined to explain to Forum 18 how these latest sentences matched Armenia's previous promises, claiming that the issue is "outside the competence of the Foreign Ministry".

ARMENIA: Will Armenia now fulfil all its human rights commitments?

After repeated refusals over a nine-year period, the Jehovah's Witness community has finally received state registration. Hratch Keshishian, a Jehovah's Witness leader, told Forum 18 News Service that "when they phoned us from the state registry to tell us that registration had been issued I didn't believe them." But it is not known what impact this will have on the Jehovah's Witnesses serving prison terms for refusing military service, thus breaking Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe. Keshishian told Forum 18 that freedom to practise their faith as a religious community is now the Jehovah's Witnesses' aim, as "registration in itself doesn't resolve all our problems." For example, under Armenia's religion law, but against international human rights obligations, only the Armenian Apostolic Church is legally permitted to conduct missionary activity.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Why can't Baptist Church function?

Masis Mailyan, deputy foreign minister of the unrecognised enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that, despite the latest police raid on a Baptist congregation, the enclave follows the commitments contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, telling Forum 18 that "there are no restrictions on believers and all confessions are equal." However he contradicted himself by stating, contrary to Article 18, that, under the martial law that has operated since 1992, only registered organisations can exist and that Baptists "cannot hold services." Mailyan denied that only the Armenian Apostolic Church is allowed to function, but admitted that it is the only registered religious community. Other local Protestants have told Forum 18 that pressure on their work has eased in recent years and their congregations can function quietly, so it is unclear why the Baptists have been singled out for the authorities' continuing hostility.

ARMENIA: Imprisonment, no registration, and no identity documents for JWs

Armenia continues to jail Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors, in clear breach of its Council of Europe and OSCE commitments, although human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan has denied to Forum 18 News Service that the commitments have been broken. The head of the state religious affairs department, Hranush Kharatyan, has rejected the right upheld in international human rights agreements of religious believers to spread their beliefs by peaceful means. An alternative service law is theoretically in force, but in practice cannot yet be applied. Jehovah's Witnesses see the alternative service terms as excessive punishment for their refusal to do military service, and are also being denied identity documents – necessary eg. for employment or marriage - on completing jail terms. Also, for the twelfth time since 1995, Jehovah's Witneses have been denied state registration. Stefan Buchmayer, the OSCE's Yerevan human rights officer, told Forum 18 that "one cannot find real legal justification for the refusal."

ARMENIA: Council of Europe fails to punish commitment violations over imprisoned conscientious objectors

With 24 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for refusing military service on grounds of conscience, another fined and a further three awaiting trial, Council of Europe officials have been unable to explain to Forum 18 News Service what punishment Armenia faces – if any - for violating its commitments to the organisation. The commitments required Armenia to have freed all imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduced alternative service by January 2004, but it failed on both counts. One outsider involved in the issue at the Council of Europe, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18 that the Armenian government had deployed "an especially successful lobbying campaign" to have the issue buried. The Jehovah's Witnesses, one of Armenia's largest religious minorities, appear no nearer to receiving state registration.

AZERBAIJAN: Police refuse to protect Adventists facing death threats

Police have refused to protect an Adventist pastor in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), who has been threatened by local men with death or being driven out of the community. "People phone and come to my house to threaten us but the authorities have refused to help," Pastor Khalid Babaev told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Babaev fears for the safety of his wife and son, and does not know if it will be safe to hold a service as usual next Saturday. Local Muslims have threatened to sacrifice Babaev as a holy duty and to halt Adventist religious activity in Nakhichevan. If Pastor Babaev holds another service, he has been told that a mob will be collected to attack his house. The police have refused to discuss the threats with Forum 18, or say what they would do to protect church members from the threatened violence.