Armenia- Imprisonment, no registration, and no identity docs for JWs


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


Tuesday 3 August 2004

Armenia continues to jail Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors, in
clear breach of its Council of Europe and OSCE commitments, although human
rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan has denied to Forum 18 News Service that
the commitments have been broken. The head of the state religious affairs
department, Hranush Kharatyan, has rejected the right upheld in
international human rights agreements of religious believers to spread
their beliefs by peaceful means. An alternative service law is
theoretically in force, but in practice cannot yet be applied. Jehovah’s
Witnesses see the alternative service terms as excessive punishment for
their refusal to do military service, and are also being denied identity
documents – necessary eg. for employment or marriage – on completing
jail terms. Also, for the twelfth time since 1995, Jehovah’s Witneses have
been denied state registration. Stefan Buchmayer, the OSCE’s Yerevan human
rights officer, told Forum 18 that “one cannot find real legal
justification for the refusal.”


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Armenia’s Jehovah’s Witness community has just received its twelfth
registration denial since 1995, with fourteen members in prison for
refusing military service on religious grounds and a further eleven
expecting to be tried for refusing the lengthy and harsh alternative
service, the terms of which they see as a punishment for refusing military
service. Problems for those completing prison terms also seem to be
mounting. Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that seventeen
recently freed young men are being refused identity documents (internal
passports) because they are not registered with the military commissariat,
while a further seven who have identity documents are being refused
residency registration, a requirement in Armenia.

Officials blame the Jehovah’s Witnesses for allegedly failing to try to
resolve these problems with the government. “If those being released
are not getting passports they have put themselves in that situation,”
the human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan told Forum 18 from the capital
Yerevan on 2 August. Hranush Kharatyan, head of the government’s religious
affairs department, told Forum 18 the same day that the Jehovah’s Witnesses
had failed to respond to her invitations to discuss how to amend their
statute to get registration.

Fifteen Jehovah’s Witnesses from various parts of Armenia, who did not
possess an internal passport before they were called up by the army, found
that after their release the local military commissariat refused to issue a
certificate to them until they are registered with the military
commissariat, saying they will not issues the certificates until the
Jehovah’s Witnesses have served their time. The passport office will not
issue an internal passport without this certificate. In two further cases,
both in central Yerevan, two young men who had passports before their
prison terms were refused them when they asked for their return. Both have
made official complaints to the military commissariat and the general

“This is a clear violation of their human dignity – they can’t
do anything without a passport,” Jehovah’s Witness lawyer Rustam
Khachatryan told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 2 August. “They can’t get a
job or even marry. But our clever state does allow people to pay taxes
without a passport.” He said the military commissariats are obliged to
give out these certificates, but said they deliberately refuse to give them
to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Human rights ombudsman Alaverdyan agreed that the lack of a passport would
create “an awful lot of problems” in Armenia. “People can’t
leave the country, can’t vote, can’t engage in any legal transactions, for
example.” But she said the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not reported the
problem to her and unless they do she can take no action. Yet she insisted
they have to comply with the law and get the required certificates from the
military commissariat like any other young men.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been applying for registration as a religious
community since the early 1990s, but their opposition to military service
and what many regard as their aggressive style of proselytism have offended
state officials and the leadership of the dominant Armenian Apostolic

Their latest application was submitted for the required “expert
assessment” to the government religious affairs department on 16
March, three months after a meeting between state officials and the
Jehovah’s Witnesses organised by the Yerevan office of the Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) tried to break the registration
deadlock. The religious affairs department concluded on 24 March that the
Jehovah’s Witness statute was in accordance with the law. “We didn’t
refuse the application – we gave a positive view about
registration,” its head, Hranush Kharatyan, told Forum 18.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses then submitted the application to the State
Registry of Legal Entities at the Ministry of Justice on 18 May, but it
ruled at the end of June that the statute contradicted the religion law and
other laws. Gyurgen Sarkisyan, who maintains the State Registry, had
previously told Forum 18 that “with an expert conclusion signed by the
minister and all documents, they will be registered” (see F18News 4
February 2004 ).
Sarkisyan’s phone was not being answered when Forum 18 tried to speak to
him on 2 August.

Despite having signed the expert assessment approving the application,
Kharatyan of the religious affairs department insisted to Forum 18 that a
provision in the statute describing the Jehovah’s Witness practice of
door-to-door preaching violates the law. “This amounts to proselytism
and the religion law forbids this,” she declared. “They don’t
have the right to do this.”

She flatly rejected suggestions that in a democratic country, believers of
any faith have the right to spread their beliefs by peaceful means.
“We keep getting a mass of complaints that Jehovah’s Witnesses come to
people’s homes every day and bombard them with visits,” she claimed.
Kharatyan also argued that other provisions of their statute violated the
law, although she maintained that the Jehovah’s Witness rejection of
military service was not an issue.

Stefan Buchmayer, human rights officer at the OSCE office in Yerevan,
reported that the denial of registration was for “technical
reasons” which the Justice Ministry did not fully explain. “The
Jehovah’s Witnesses cleared the expert assessment, so registration with the
justice ministry should have been only a formality,” told Forum 18 on
2 August. “One cannot find real legal justification for the
refusal.” He said his office has been closely following this issue.
“Unfortunately it has dragged on for many years.”

Despite its 2001 commitment to the Council of Europe to free all imprisoned
conscientious objectors and introduce civilian alternative service by
January 2004 (see F18News 19 April 2004
), the courts have
continued to jail young male Jehovah’s Witnesses. As late as 26 May 2004,
Ruslan Avetisyan was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and is now being
held in Nubarashen labour camp, Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18. Also
held in the same camp is Mikael Lazarian, sentenced to two years’
imprisonment the same month. The other twelve prisoners are being held in
labour camp in Kosh. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses freed early from prison for
good conduct are required to report regularly to the local police station.
On 1 April 2003, a foreign ministry spokeswoman told Forum 18 that a
“full stop” would be put to the imprisonment of conscientious
objectors by the end of 2003 (see F18News 1 April 2003

Parliament’s deputy speaker Tigran Torosyan, who heads the Armenian
delegation to the Council of Europe, told Jehovah’s Witness representatives
at the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg on 22 June
that all conscientious objector prisoners would be freed once the new law
on alternative service came into force on 1 July.

Alaverdyan, who said she has visited 21 imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses
since taking up the post of ombudsman, claimed there is a “new
situation” now that the alternative service law has taken effect.
“The situation has changed completely,” she told Forum 18.
However, the fourteen Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in labour camp.

Moreover, Buchmayer of the OSCE pointed out that, although the alternative
service law theoretically came into force on 1 July, in practice it cannot
be applied until promised amendments are approved by parliament. “This
will not now be until parliament’s autumn session at the earliest,” he
told Forum 18, “unless a special session is called, which is unlikely
for such an issue.”

Buchmeyer categorically stated that the continued imprisonment of
conscientious objectors violates Armenia’s commitments to the Council of
Europe and OSCE commitments, a point rejected by Alaverdyan.

In a new development, eleven Jehovah’s Witnesses called up in recent months
have refused the alternative service offered to them, regarding unspecified
work – perhaps cleaning sewerage systems or working in psychiatric
homes for three and a half years under military supervision – as
excessive punishment for their refusal to do military service. “This
does not meet European norms,” Khachatryan told Forum 18. The length
of the proposed alternative service has been criticised by the Council of
Europe (see F18News 4 February 2004

Khachatryan noted that Aram Manukyan, a Jehovah’s Witness from Yerevan
called up in May, is expected to face trial in the next ten days. He said a
further four are awaiting the opening of criminal cases against them, while
six more are likely to face similar cases in the near future.

Both ombudsman Alaverdyan and Kharatyan of the religious affairs department
seemed annoyed at Forum 18’s questions about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’
difficulties. “Why don’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses work with us to
resolve their problems, instead to complaining to people like you?”
Alaverdyan asked Forum 18. “Organisations like yours seem only
interested in having continuing cases to take up rather than resolving them
properly.” Kharatyan echoed these sentiments. “Why don’t the
Jehovah’s Witnesses come to us if they want to resolve these issues?”
she exclaimed. “I absolutely don’t understand why they go running to
others to complain and don’t come to us.” She said her office had
helped other religious communities bring their registration applications
into line with the law.

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