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Armenia: Jehovah's Witnesses Trapped In Bureaucratic Maze

At a gathering of the Council of Europe in June, the deputy speaker of Armenia's parliament said Yerevan would free Jehovah's Witnesses who had been jailed as conscientious objectors -- as soon as parliament passed a new alternative-service law. The law was passed in July, but at least 13 conscientious objectors remain in jail in Armenia, including five jailed just this month. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has questioned the country's actions, as have other civil rights organizations.

Prague, 22 October 2004 -- Different government officials offer divergent statements about the treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia.

According to deputy speaker of parliament Tigran Torosyan, there are no members of the Christian denomination in jail for resisting military service as conscientious objectors. Torosyan told RFE/RL yesterday, "I don't know examples of people belonging to this organization who are in jail."

The Forum 18 news service -- which covers religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe -- reported that, in fact, five Jehovah's Witnesses have been jailed this month alone for refusing military service. That brings to 13 the number serving prison time for the offense. The maximum sentence for such an offense in Armenia is two years.

In yet another statement, Torosyan said those conscientious objectors in jail in Armenia would be freed when a new law on alternatives to military service was passed. He made the comment to Jehovah's Witnesses representatives at a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last June. The law passed on 1 July. Yet the conscientious objectors remain in jail.

Despite parliament adopting a law on alternative service, the government has not made any provision for such service. A lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Rustam Khachatryan, said that is what Defense Ministry officials told his clients individually before they were prosecuted and jailed.

Officials have also said Jehovah's Witnesses cannot be recognized as conscientious objectors until the denomination achieves official registration as a religious organization.

But Paul S. Gillies, a spokesman for the group, points out that authorities finally registered the church on 11 October. The group had sought this status for nine years. "One of the explanations [for denying conscientious objectors' rights] that was given to me personally was that they were waiting for registration. Because we were unregistered, then they couldn't release the prisoners. But then one of the obstacles to registration was always said to be the fact that we were conscientious objectors," Gillies told RFE/RL.
"I get the feeling that no government department particularly wants to do this --- to [implement] an alternative-service law."

Forum 18 says that Vladimir Karapetian of the ministry's Media Relations Division said on 19 October that the issue is outside the competence of the Foreign Ministry.

Natalia Voutova, a Council of Europe representative in Yerevan, said the Foreign Ministry declined to explain how keeping a promise the country made to the council in 2001 could be construed as outside the competence of the ministry.

Forum 18 editor Felix Corley told RFE/RL that he does not believe all of these contradictions indicate that Armenia's bureaucracy is incompetent. "No. I get the feeling that no government department particularly wants to do this --- to [implement] an alternative-service law." he said. "They know perfectly well what they are doing. The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the representatives to the Council of Europe -- they all know perfectly well what the commitments are. They all know perfectly well what the current situation is. They just don't want to. They fear political and social pressure."

Corley said the Jehovah's Witnesses -- which says it has 8,000 members in Armenia -- is probably the most unpopular religious group in Armenia, where normalcy means membership -- however casual -- in the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In a country troubled by tense relations with neighboring Azerbaijan, refusal of military service is disliked. Also, the group aggressively seeks to recruit new converts, an activity that offends many in the country.

Jehovah's Witnesses has its headquarters in New York and claims 6 million members around the world. The group's fundamental guiding belief is that the Bible contains the literal word of God.

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