Armenia: situation of conscientious objectors worrying / 48 COs in prison

Forum 18 News Service reported on 22 February that 48 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned in Armenia, with four more awaiting trial. A Jehovah's Witness lawyer has complained to Forum 18 News Service "that the Armenian authorities are deliberately dragging out the trials, as they are too embarrassed to sentence them.

The lawyer, who preferred not to be named, gave the appeal of the four Jehovah's Witnesses who abandoned their 'alternative' service at Sevan Psychiatric Hospital, north of Lake Sevan, last May as an example. The four abandoned their service when after it became obvious that the military was in control; they were checked up on by Military Police, kept in military barracks, fed by the military, had to wear military uniforms and were ordered to have military haircuts. Cases against them for abandoning their service were begun by the Military Prosecutor. Their appeal was due on 17 February, but after waiting an hour for the Prosecutor it turned out that the four prisoners had not been brought,' the lawyer told Forum 18 on 21 February. 'The judge could have phoned the prison and had them brought as it is only 15 minutes' drive away. But he didn't.' The appeal is now due on 27 February but the lawyer remains sceptical it will go ahead", Forum 18 reported.

"One crucial document revealing the extent of military control over the supposedly-civilian alternative service was Order No. 142 issued by Deputy Defence Minister Mikael Harutyunyan on 20 December 2004. The minister ordered the military commissar and the military police to ensure military supervision weekly of all those performing alternative service, with monthly written reports to the Chief of the General Staff, and military searches for any who abscond. The order required the Head of the Mobilisation Administration of the General Staff to supervise the fulfilment of the order.

After all 22 Jehovah's Witnesses who had opted for alternative service abandoned it in spring and summer 2005, other Jehovah's Witness young men have refused to accept military service or the military-controlled alternative. Seventeen have been sentenced to prison terms of between one and two years since April 2005. Seven more were arrested and charged in December and January, with a further two charged but awaiting arrest at home."

On 23 February, Forum 18 reported on the fourth revision of Armenia's Alternative Service Law: "Alternative service, which the authorities were obliged to have introduced by January 2004, the third anniversary of Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe, eventually became available in the wake of parliament's highly reluctant adoption of an Alternative Service Law later in 2004. The Law - which came into force on 1 July 2004, and was amended by parliament on 22 November 2004 and again on 24 December 2004 - provides for 'alternative military service' of 36 months and 'alternative labour service' of 42 months, both under the ultimate oversight of the Defence Ministry, thus failing to meet Armenia's Council of Europe commitments."

"Unlike other officials, who try to pretend the alternative labour service is civilian, Justice Minister David Harutyunyan admitted that it is currently under military control, declaring: 'This is the practice, though not the law.' But he refused to accept that such military control is the main reason that the Jehovah's Witnesses reject it. 'To my mind there is no problem over who controls the alternative service, as long as the service itself is without weapons.'

Despite defending the current system, Harutyunyan insisted the government will eliminate "some contradictions" (which he did not specify) in its current preparation of amendments to the alternative service law."

Sources: Forum 18 News Service, 22 February 2006, 23 February 2006