RFE/RL Armenia: Jehovah’s Witnesses Trapped In Bureaucratic Maze

RFE/RL Armenia: Jehovah’s Witnesses Trapped In Bureaucratic Maze
Friday, 22 October 2004

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

By Don Hill

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

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

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

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

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.