CoE fails to punish violations re imprisoned conscientious objectors


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief


Monday 19 April 2004

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.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Despite open defiance of its Council of Europe commitments by continuing to
arrest and imprison conscientious objectors to military service, Armenia
seems set to escape punishment from the international organisation. No
Council of Europe official reached by Forum 18 News Service was prepared or
able to say what punishment – if any – the country would face
for violating its pledge to the Council of Europe to free all imprisoned
conscientious objectors and have an alternative service system functioning
by January 2004, three years after it joined the organisation (see F18News
4 February 2004 ).
Armenia failed on both counts. March saw four Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced
to prison terms of between one and two years for refusing military service,
bringing to 24 the number of imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses, the highest
number of imprisoned conscientious objectors of all the former Soviet
republics. Another was given a large fine.

Jerzy Jaskiernia, a Polish parliamentarian and one of the two Council of
Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteurs for Armenia, told Forum 18 on 15
April that the Council of Europe is “pursuing the issue and asking the
government to change the law”. But he declined to specify any
penalties the Armenian government might face over its violation of its
commitments and referred all further enquiries to Council of Europe
officials in Strasbourg. Forum 18’s enquiry to David Cupina of the
organisation’s Monitoring Committee went unanswered as of 18 April.

Another Council of Europe official who has been involved in tackling
Armenia’s violations of its commitments told Forum 18 on condition of
anonymity that its continuing imprisonment of conscientious objectors
“clearly violates” its commitments and rejected outright Armenian
government assertions that the failure to meet the deadline to free all
imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduce the alternative service
system had been agreed with the Council of Europe. But asked what
punishment Armenia would receive, the official laughed and declined to

But the official vehemently denied suggestions that the people of Europe
would lose confidence in the organisation that is supposed to promote human
rights when specific commitments individual countries undertake are flouted
with impunity. The official pointed out that Armenia abolished the death
penalty – another commitment it undertook on joining the organisation
– only after repeated pressure from the Council of Europe.

Others are more cynical. One outsider involved in the conscientious
objection issue with 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. But the Council of Europe official dismissed this as an explanation
for how the country had escaped censure. “That’s absolutely not true.
All ten member states under monitoring of their commitments lobby.”

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agrees with
the Council of Europe that the practice of imprisoning conscientious
objectors should have ended long ago. “The practice of sentencing
conscientious objectors is contrary to the letter of the OSCE commitments
as well as commitments undertaken by Armenia to the Council of
Europe,” Maria Silvanyan, senior human rights legal assistant at the
OSCE Office in Yerevan, told Forum 18 on 15 April.

Silvanyan said the OSCE office “fully shares” the view expressed
in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly back in January that all
imprisoned conscientious objectors should be freed immediately by
presidential pardon pending the entry into force of the law on alternative
military service on 1 July “once necessary legal acts regulating
alternative civilian service are adopted”. Silvanyan added that OSCE
officials held several meetings last year with representatives of the
prosecutor’s office to urge it to end the practice of sentencing Jehovah’s
Witnesses for conscientious objection to military service.

All 24 imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving sentences of between one
and two years’ imprisonment under Article 327 part 1 of the criminal code.
Ten of them have been sentenced since Armenia’s deadline for ending the
practice expired. A further Jehovah’s Witness, Stepan Yepremyan, was
sentenced on 29 March to a fine of 300,000 drams (3,598 Norwegian kroner,
435 Euros or 522 US dollars) under the same criminal code article.
“This is the first trial that has ended without a prison
sentence,” Hratch Keshishian, the leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in
Armenia, told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 8 April. Three other Jehovah’s
Witnesses are awaiting trial, two of them in pre-trial detention and one at
home, although he has had to sign a pledge to say he will not leave his

Despite Armenia’s clear violation of its commitments, Aram Argaryan, head
of the Council of Europe division of the Armenian Foreign Ministry,
categorically denied that his government had failed to meet its
obligations. “We undertook these obligations,” he told Forum 18
on 7 April. “We have not failed to meet them.” Asked why, if
Armenia had met its commitments, 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in prison,
with three more awaiting trial, he responded: “I can’t confirm that. I
don’t have that information.”

Maintaining that legal reform was a “long process”, Argaryan
claimed that the Armenian government had confirmed its timetable of
introducing alternative service with the Council of Europe, an assertion
specifically denied to Forum 18 by Council of Europe officials. He
maintained that Armenia had until the end of 2004 to introduce alternative
service, another claim specifically rejected by Council of Europe
officials. “We take our commitments seriously,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one of Armenia’s largest religious
minorities, have still not achieved state registration after a decade of
trying. Keshishian told Forum 18 that they had most recently handed in a
registration application to the government on 16 March. On 30 March the
government handed back an “expert opinion” about whether the
group should be registered, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses are still
studying. “The expert opinion gave the government no recommendation as
to whether to register us or not,” Keshishian explained. “It said
we could apply to be entered in the register, but that what we preach is
against the law and that therefore we don’t meet the provisions of the

Keshishian complained of what he claimed were “active measures”
against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including hostile media coverage and
leaflets, and an anti-Jehovah’s Witness demonstration in Yerevan on 18
April. “We are not optimistic about getting registration – the
mood doesn’t look promising.”

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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS