Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia
January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2004
Jehovah’s Witnesses were finally registered in Armenia on October 8, 2004, after 14 applications filed since 1995. The more than 8,500 Armenian Jehovah’s Witnesses are hopeful that the registration of their organization will resolve their inability to print or import literature and hold religious conventions as well as bring an end to the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service. The following events led up to the registration.
- On March 16, 2004, the Chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia and Jehovah’s Witnesses met with Harutyun Sardaryan and Vardan Astvatsatryan, specialists of the Department for Expert Studies of the Government Apparatus. Jehovah’s Witnesses received a written confirmation that their application for an expert opinion was filed. Armenian law stipulates that the Government Apparatus should issue their expert opinion within ten days.
- On March 24, 2004, the Department for Affairs of National Minorities and Religion under the Government Apparatus issued their expert conclusion on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the report contains numerous pejorative comments, it acknowledges that Jehovah’s Witnesses fulfill the main legal requirements for registration. The report states: “The documents presented by the Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses of the RA meet the requirements of Article 5(b) - (e) of the Law of the RA on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.”
- On May 18, 2004, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed all required documents with the State Registry of the Ministry of Justice. The application was due to be processed within a month.
- On June 17, 2004, the State Registry of the Ministry of Justice issued an official denial to register Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on minor deficiencies in the Community’s charter and founding documentation.
- On August 3, 2004, Jehovah’s Witnesses again submitted the package of documents for registration, including the revised Charter, containing the adjustments stipulated in the State Registry’s letter.
- On September 2, 2004, the State Registry Agency rejected the registration documents of Jehovah’s Witnesses, citing a procedural violation: the absence of documents showing that a meeting of members of the organization was held in order to approve the changes in the Charter that were adopted after the previous rejection. On September 5, 2004, the membership of the organization held a meeting to verify the adoption of the revised Charter, and on September 9, 2004, the registration documents were resubmitted, along with the revised Charter and the minutes of the organizational meeting.
- On October 7, 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Counsel of Europe adopted Resolution 1405 (2004), which states in paragraph 11(iv, v, and vi): “Furthermore, the Assembly is expecting rapid progress concerning: . . . the excessive length of the period of alternative civilian service, which has been set at 42 months; the registration of the association of Jehovah's Witnesses; [and] the creation of an independent body representing all Armenia's religious organisations and communities.”
- On October 8, 2004, the State Registrar of the Republic of Armenia registered the Christian Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Armenia. The news was carried on several television stations in Armenia. On October 11, 2004, the registrar of the Central Agency of the State Registry of the Ministry of Justice telephoned the office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to advise them of their registration, and at 5:30 p.m., a representative of the Registry presented the official certificate of registration to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Imprisonment of Conscientious Objectors
On December 1, 2003, the Armenian Parliament passed a law on alternative service, which took effect on July 1, 2004. However, in direct contradiction to its commitments, Armenia is still arresting and imprisoning young men (who are Jehovah’s Witnesses) for their conscientious refusal of military service on religious grounds. Their sentences range from one-and-a-half to two years of imprisonment, mostly for the violation of Article 327(1) of the Criminal Code, which states: “Evading a recurring call to emergency military service, or educational or military training, without a legal basis for being relieved of this service, shall incur a fine in the amount of 300 to 500 minimum wages or arrest for up to two months or imprisonment for up to two years.”
For the first time, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was convicted under Article 327(1) and fined instead of being imprisoned. Additionally, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was sentenced under a different statute—Article 362 (1)—that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The Prosecutor continues to appeal some one-year sentences, seeking harsher penalties for conscientious objectors. Other Witnesses are currently awaiting trial.
- On January 27, 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 1361(2004). Paragraph 23 states: “Armenia undertook on joining the Council of Europe to pardon conscientious objectors serving prison terms. [The Parliamentary Assembly] expresses its indignation at the fact that 20 or so young people who refuse to perform military service are still in prison. It therefore demands that they be released immediately by presidential pardon pending the entry into force on July 1, 2004, of the law on alternative civilian service.”
- On February 10, 2004, two new applications were filed with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of two Armenian Jehovah’s Witnesses who were imprisoned because of their conscientious objection to military service, Ashot Smbati Tsaturyan and Haik Sargsi Bukharatyan. The applications claim a violation of Articles 9 (religious freedom) and 14 (discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights. A similar application (Bayatyan v. Armenia) was filed on October 3, 2003.
- On March 5, 2004, conscientious objector Vardan Sahakyan was sentenced to a year and a half in prison under Article 362(1), which states: “Desertion, i.e. willful abandonment of the military unit or place of service for the purpose of total evasion from military service, as well as failure to report for service for the same reasons, is punished with imprisonment for the term of up to four years”
- On March 22, 2004, the court of appeal increased the sentence of conscientious objector David Chandoyan (who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses) from one to two years.
- On March 29, 2004, conscientious objector Stepan Epremyan (also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses) was convicted under Article 327(1) of the Criminal Code but was fined 300,000 drams (approximately $500 US) instead of being imprisoned. This is the first time that a fine has been imposed on one of Jehovah’s Witnesses instead of imprisonment.
- As of October 13, 2004, there are over 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses who, after their release from prison as conscientious objectors to military service, have been refused identity documents (internal passports) because they are not given a document of registration by the military commissariat. The identity documents are necessary for such things as employment or marriage. An additional seven men, who have identity documents, are being refused residency registration, a requirement in Armenia.
- As of December 27, 2004, there are 11 young Witnesses who are imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service. Another three Witnesses have been arrested and are waiting for their trial.