Prisoners of Conscience
Conscientious objectors in Armenia face prison for lack of a genuinely civilian alternative to military service. From EurasiaNet. by Emil Danielyan 13 March 2006
Young men refusing to serve in the armed forces for religious reasons are again being prosecuted in Armenia, despite the introduction nearly two years ago of a legal alternative to compulsory military service. Conscientious objectors, mainly Jehovah's Witnesses, are refusing to enlist for alternative civilian service on the grounds that it is controlled by the Armenian military. About 50 of them are currently in jail or are awaiting trial.
Local and international human rights organizations have long criticized the authorities in Yerevan for jailing conscientious objectors. In 2001, the Council of Europe made elimination of the practice a key condition for admitting Armenia as a member. However, an Armenian law on alternative service that came into force in July 2004 has so far failed to address the problem. Council of Europe officials say it does not fully meet European standards and should be amended.
The law gave male citizens who refuse mandatory military service two options: to perform noncombat duties inside army bases for three years or to spend three and a half years at civilian institutions. After the law came into force, 22 Jehovah's Witnesses opted for the latter option and were assigned to special civilian hospitals, including Armenia's largest psychiatric clinic. But they soon discovered that these facilities are essentially under military control – the workers were regularly checked on by military police officers, confined to the medical institutions for 24 hours a day, and even fed by the army.
‘NOT AN OPTION’
"For young Jehovah's Witnesses, to be attached to the military in any form is impossible because that means cooperating with the military," said Andre Carbonneau, a Canadian lawyer representing the Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia. That, he added, would run counter to one of the main tenets of the U.S.-based Christian sect.
That also explains why all 22 men abandoned their places of service before being arrested in August. Thirteen of the objectors were tried and controversially sentenced to between two and three years' imprisonment under articles of the Armenian Criminal Code that deal with desertion from military units. The court sentences occurred before the authorities enacted a law in January that declared abandonment of civilian service a crime punishable by imprisonment.
According to Carbonneau, this constitutes a retroactive enforcement of the law, illegal under Armenia's constitution. Acting on the attorney's complaint, an Armenian appeals court recently overturned virtually all of the Jehovah's Witness convictions by lower courts. However, it stopped short of ordering the release of the conscientious objectors, only sending their cases back to prosecutors. The latter are refusing to set the men free, pending another trial.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have responded by lodging an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which they hope will order the release of the men, the only Armenians to date to perform alternative service. But Carbonneau admitted that there is little they can do about nearly 30 other Jehovah's Witnesses who refused outright to perform military-controlled civilian duty after the alternative service law came into force. They are now being kept in pretrial detention. "The law on alternative service is not an option for any conscientious objector," he said.
Council of Europe bodies monitoring Armenia's compliance with the country's membership obligations appear to share this view. "The Council of Europe and its monitoring mechanisms consider that the commitments in this area have not fully been met with the current legislation," the head of the Strasbourg-based organization's Yerevan office, Bojana Urumova, told EurasiaNet. Urumova said it should be amended "in a way which will meet European standards and resolve this issue definitely." Armenian authorities have to come up with a "genuine civilian alternative to military service," she added.
OBJECTS OF SUSPICION
The Armenian government, meanwhile, has drafted amendments to the law on alternative service that will be debated by parliament later this year. With government officials refusing to disclose the amendments' content for the moment, it is not clear whether they will satisfy the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Armenian military has always feared that alternative service could serve as a legal loophole for mass draft evasion; hence, its desire to strictly regulate the process. In a December 2004 directive, the chief of the Armenian army staff, Col.-Gen. Mikael Harutiunian, ordered military officials to regularly report to him about civilian compliance with regulations that, among other things, require them to stay in their place of service 24 hours a day and take leaves of absence only with official permission.
Jehovah's Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion by the authorities and a large part of Armenia's population, primarily due to their strong opposition to military service. Many Armenian politicians and ordinary people alike consider their pacifist doctrine a serious threat to the national security of a country locked in a bitter territorial conflict with one of its neighbors, Azerbaijan. The sect had for years been denied official registration for that reason.
The government formally legalized it only in October 2004, in a move that was condemned by the Armenian Apostolic Church. "The activities of totalitarian religious organizations, including Jehovah's Witnesses, run counter to our national and state interests and aspirations," the church, to which over 90 percent of Armenians around the world nominally belong, said in a statement issued at the time.
In the words of Tigran Harutiunian, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Armenia, apart from the renewed prosecution of its young male members, the religious group has faced no government restrictions since then and currently boasts more than 20,000 Armenian adherents. "We are happy to be able to freely talk about our faith," he said.