Armenia: a record number of conscientious objectors in prison

According to recent information from Forum 18 News Service, there are presently 72 religious conscientious objectors in Armenian prisons, despite a promise of 2004 to free conscientious objectors.

Forum 18 News Service reported that the objectors - all Jehovah's Witnesses, are imprisoned for refusing both military service and the alternative service under military control, the highest number ever. This number could rise still further as the spring 2007 call-up gets underway. "Sentences are getting harsher and are now typically up to three years' imprisonment," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Lyova Markaryan told Forum 18 from the capital Yerevan on 1 May. "The government is saying nothing about this issue." He says the government should fulfil its obligations to the Council of Europe by freeing all the imprisoned conscientious objectors, halt further prosecutions and introduce a purely civilian alternative to military service.

On its accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001, Armenia pledged to adopt a law on alternative service within three years and to beforehand free all conscientious objectors from prison. The Alternative Service Law was adopted in 2004, but the alternative service it created is under military control. This contradicts Council of Europe principles.

On 23 January 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe again passed a resolution expressing disappointment over the failure to introduce a civilian alternative service. The resolution says "as regards Armenia's commitment to adopt a law on alternative service "in compliance with European standards" and "pardon all conscientious objectors sentenced to prison terms", the Assembly is disappointed to note that the current law, as amended in 2005 and subsequently in June 2006, still does not offer conscientious objectors any guarantee of "genuine alternative service of a clearly civilian nature, which should be neither deterrent nor punitive in character", as provided for by Council of Europe standards. It is deeply concerned that, for lack of a genuine form of civilian service, dozens of conscientious objectors, most of whom are Jehovah's Witnesses, continue to be imprisoned, since they prefer prison to an alternative service not of a truly civilian nature."

Currently, the Military Commissariat sends those accepted for alternative service to the Health and Social Security ministries for work to be assigned to such conscientious objectors. However, this allegedly "civilian" alternative service is supervised by the Military Police under regulations laid down by the Defence Ministry. Conscientious objectors are ordered to wear uniform provided by the military and fed by the military. All breaches of orders or regulations are dealt with by the Military Prosecutor's Office.

Order No. 142, issued by the then Deputy Defence Minister Mikael Harutyunyan on 20 December 2004, ordered the Military Commissariat and the Military Police to ensure that there is weekly military supervision of everyone performing "civilian" alternative service. Monthly written reports were ordered to be submitted to the Chief of the General Staff, and the military was ordered to search for anyone who attempts to evade the "civilian" alternative service. The Head of the Mobilisation Administration of the General Staff was given the responsibility of ensuring that Order No. 142 is obeyed (see F18News 22 February 2006).

Sources: Forum 18 News Service, 2 May 2007, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Resolution 1532 (2007), Honouring of obligations and commitments by Armenia