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 December 20, 2002 

Conscience on Trial: Jehovah's Witnesses continue to face imprisonment for religious beliefs

Artur Grigoryan faces 2.5 years of no such views"Who will wish his child to be among criminals? It hurts us. But we are glad that he has a point of view for which he was willing to go to jail," says Hovhanes, father of Jehovah's Witness Artur Grigoryan, who is now in Nubarashen's isolation ward for refusing to go to military service.

Artur, 18, is one of 20 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison, convicted of avoiding conscription. This year 42 Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to imprisonment on the same charge and most have been set free for good behavior after serving a third of their sentence. Four more are awaiting trial. Since 1995 about 130 Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to imprisonment on the same charge.

"Every person has his or her own way of educating the conscience, one with the help of TV, another with the help of literature," says Artur Martirosyan, in charge of public relations for the religious group. "Jehovah's Witnesses educate their conscience with the help of the Bible, where Jesus is the law. He never bore arms and never participated in affairs of state." (Martirosyan himself spent nine months in prison in 1999 for refusing military service.)

According to official statistics of the Ministry of Justice, 90 young men were sentenced on the charge of avoiding conscription in 2000, 75 in 2001 and 42 during the first six months of 2002. It is not recorded, however, how many refused based on religious beliefs.

In Armenia only Jehovah's Witnesses are sentenced for avoiding military service. Believers of other religious organizations, especially Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals, agree to serve in the army but only without carrying arms or swearing an oath.

According to data of Jehovah's Witnesses' organization, 32 of their members were convicted in 2000 and 31 last year.

"I was asked why my child didn't serve in army and went to prison. I said isn't it peace that you are toasting for most of all? My child has already laid down the arms," says Hovhanes Grigoryan. "He was tried for avoiding military service. In reality he didn't avoid but he refused."

Artur Martirossyan:  "Each person has his or her own way of educating the conscience . . ."All of Artur Grigoryan's family are Jehovah's Witnesses. His mother, Larisa, tells how the director of his school didn't let him attend the school - saying it was not a school for Jehovah's Witnesses - until he was ordered by the Ministry of Education to let the boy in.

On May 17 Artur went to the military commissariat and presented a statement on refusing military service "because my conscience was educated in accordance with the principles of the Bible." In his statement he cited a verse from the New Testament: "For all they that take up the sword shall perish with the sword"

It is also written in his statement that he is ready to implement civil unarmed service.

On September 27 Artur was called to the Prosecutor's office of the Center Nork-Marrash and was arrested.

On November 1 the Court of First Instance sentenced him to one year of imprisonment. His father recalls how judge Edik Avetisyan had said that the child was a victim of the law.

The Prosecutor's office appealed the lower court's verdict in the Court of Appeal, maintaining that the sentence wasn't severe enough and that the boy did not admit guilt. On November 26 the Court of Appeal gave Grigoryan an additional 1.5 years. (The punishment for avoiding military service is from 1 to 3 years of imprisonment).

"Even criminals don't get such prison terms as my 18 year old son was sentenced to," says Hovhanes.

Another Jehovah's Witness Karen Abajyan had the same fate. In the beginning he was sentenced to one year of imprisonment and then the Court of Appeal made it 2.5. Vahan Bayatyan, sentenced to one year of imprisonment, is also waiting for the verdict of the Court of Appeal.

"We are concerned with the fact that prison terms of those who are sentenced to one year of imprisonment, is increasing," says Kristin Martirosyan, who is in charge of human rights issues of the Yerevan Bureau of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We are trying to solve this problem and not to let their prison terms increase. Our ambassador presents those facts when he meets with high-ranking officials, for instance, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs or Chief Prosecutor Tamazyan and asks them what are their aims and to what extent do they correspond to the obligations undertaken for Europe.

"Last year when those who were refusing military service for the reason of religious convictions were sentenced for the second time, the bureau applied to the corresponding bodies and thanks to our assistance that practice was stopped."

Artur has appealed the verdict, and a court will hear his case beginning next week.

Yesterday another Jehovah's Witness, Set Poghosyan, was sentenced to two years by a court in Charentsavan city. He knew in advance that after the verdict he would be taken directly to the Nubarashen's isolation ward. Unlike Artur Grigoryan, Set hadn't been arrested before the trial, he signed a document saying that he wouldn't leave the city.

Artur Grigoryan's brother tends livestock while Artur is in prisonPoghosyan was examined by the medical commission of the military commissariat and was considered as able-bodied for military service. He sent by post a statement to the prosecutor's office and military commissariat stating that he refuses military service.

"I'm not against the medical examination, as if there is unarmed service then I must be considered as able-bodied for that," he says, "I don't want to go to prison. I would prefer to be useful for the country. For instance I have a qualification of computer operator or I can construct the streets. I'm very healthy and instead of being in prison for two years I can serve, do any kind of work that the government will appoint me to but not as a military man or as punished one. The Bible, which educated my conscience, doesn't allow carrying arms and wearing military uniform. It doesn't allow taking oath telling that I will dedicate my life to the republic. I dedicated my life to God."

Set's mother and sister are also Jehovah's Witnesses, however, his father, who is not Jehovah's Witnesses, takes his child's decision very hard and encouraged him to go to the army. Set says that his father has gotten over his decision and even involuntary he assisted him by giving $200 for hiring a lawyer.

Jehovah's Witness Anton Tigranyan, from Aragatsotn region, was arrested yesterday and faces charges for refusing service.

According to paragraph 47 of the Constitution of Armenia, every citizen is obliged to participate in the defense of Armenia by the order assigned by law.

However, on January 25 of 2001 by becoming a member of the Council of Europe Armenia undertook an obligation that "during three years it will adopt the law on unarmed service corresponding to the European standards and before adopting that law it is obliged to pardon all those who are sentenced to imprisonment or sentenced to the service in disciplinary battalions on the charge of refusing military service for the reasons of freedom of conscience by letting them choose unarmed or alternative civil service (before the law on alternative service will be in force.)".

In April of 2001 all 35 Jehovah's Witnesses who were in prisons were set free. However, that act of the authorities was not a discharge of duties. Together with other prisoners they were set free as a result of the amnesty made by authorities on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia.

"The amnesty doesn't mean to release people from the prisons," says Armen Rustamyan, deputy head of the delegation of the National Assembly of Armenia in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, "There will be amnesty and they won't be considered as sentenced and if they are released what should they do? The Constitution doesn't make exceptions for anybody. The release from the prisons must be carried out in accordance with the law.

"There are three years to create the legislative field, to change the Constitution and to create alternative service."

Rustamyan says there is no clear definition yet of what "alternative service" should be.

Set Poghosyan,  sentenced to two years"Military service without carrying arms doesn't contradict the obligations we undertook. It is written in the documents of the Council of Europe that alternative service is either civil or military service without carrying arms. It is not written there "both… and…". We must choose one way of the alternative service from those two. They don't participate in violence serving in the army without carrying arms. They say it is not the alternative service we want. Jehovah's Witnesses must not impose orders of the country."

The law on alternative service is on the agenda of the National Assembly. That draft of the law says that the alternative for the military service is a military service without carrying arms and it is only for those whose religious beliefs are in conflict with service.

Kristin Martirosyan says that according to the international standards and the requirements of the Council of Europe, the alternative service must be civil service. There is no other meaning. The OSCE accepted not only the right of those people who refuse any military service for the reasons of their religious convictions but the right of those people who refuse for the reason of any other convictions.

"Armenia undertook that obligation and it is only a matter of time when it is going to meet that obligation. During one year Armenia must adopt the law on the alternative service," Martirosyan says. "There are also several paragraphs in the draft of the law which contradict European standards. … We try to show Armenia those paragraphs so that it could make them correspond to those standards.

"Representatives of our bureau participated in several trials where those who refused military service for the reason of religious convictions, were tried.

"When we ask why you try them they answer that they are guided by the functioning law, despite they undertook obligations of the Council of Europe. The fact is that not only are those people not released but they continue to put people in prison."

From the prison Artur Grigoryan sends his mother roses made of bread crumb and also he sends letters, where he asks her to take good care of the livestock. He has 20 pigs, ducks, turkey, rooster and doves. Now his younger brother Armen takes care of them.

His father jokes that in reality it is not Artur who had been sentenced to two and half years imprisonment, but Armen, who must take care of so many animals.


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