- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 April 18, 2003 

Crisis of Conscience: Police employee fired for religious beliefs

Zemfira Voskanyan, center,  wants her job back.The head of the financial subdivision of the Stepanavan Police Department has been fired because of her religious beliefs.

Zemfira Voskanyan, who professes beliefs of Jehovah's Witness, was dismissed from her position in February.

Voskanyan's dismissal conforms to an order issued last December by the head of the Republic of Armenia Police, Hayk Harutyunyan.

According to No. 551-A police department employees who are members of any religion other than Armenian Apostolic Church must be identified. And, those who do not recant their faith are subject to being fired.

According to the order: ". . .unlike Armenian traditional national Church, new religious movements and organizations represent corrosive totalitarian cults or sects. Their activities are directed against individuals, families as well as society."

Voskanyan, an 18-year employee of the department, applied to the Court of First Instance of the Lori Region to have her job restored. Hearings in her case began April 9.

She began work in the department as a typist, advancing to the position of head of subdivision, with an income of 23,000 drams (about $40) a month. She says it is the only means of supporting her 13-year old son.

Last December Voskanyan, like other employees, signed a statement signifying that she had read Order 551-A and understood its conditions.

"Since February 1 I had been on vacation," she told the court. "On the 22nd the chief's driver gave me a call and said that the chief wanted to see me. On the 24th I went to the department. I was given an order according to which I was discharged from work. It was very unexpectedly. I was asking for the reasons. The chief told me that the reason was my faith."

Deputy head of the personnel department of the Lori Regional Police, colonel Arshaluis Budaghyan gave the order for Voskanyan's dismissal.

Budaghyan characterized Voskanyan as a good employee, but that her cause of dismissal follows specifications of the December order.

The police legal department's written decision to fire Voskanyan says she "is a member of Jehovah's witnesses' religious and sectarian organization. After work she participates at the religious lessons."

The statement says Voskanyan's termination follows Labor Code regulations for dismissing an employee when a "misfit with the work status is detected."

"Your being Jehovah's Witness and working in the police is incompatible," stated colonel Budaghyan.

Armenian law concerning its law enforcement department prohibits religious affiliation among its members. A lawyer representing the court argued that Order 551-A is based on that paragraph of the law. But judge Harutyunyan dismissed that line of reasoning, saying it is prohibited to copy that document of law.

American attorney Drew Holyner, representing Voskanyan, asked whether a policeman taking part in services of the Armenian Apostolic Church might not also be considered a member of a religious organization.

"I can't say what it means to be a member of a religious organization," Budaghyan said. Then under insistent questions by Holyner added: "If someone goes, lights a candle and comes back then I don't regard that person as a member. It is different to believe in God and it is different to participate at the meetings. If a person periodically takes part at the meetings it means that the person is a member of the organization."

As a result of the attorney's questions colonel Budaghyan accepted that the law on police employees doesn't concern Voskanyan as she is not an employee but a hired civilian.

Holyner argued that the basis of Voskanyan's dismissal, Order 551-A, is illegal as it contradicts freedom of conscience as established by the Constitution, United Nations Human Rights declarations and the Human Rights Convention of Europe.

"Decision 551-A is closely related to the discharge. Even if the court restores her rights for the work, she can be fired again at any second according to that law," Holyner said.

Voskanyan maintains that she is not a member of Jehovah's Witness, but that she does profess their beliefs.

"I didn't apprehend that order (551-A) seriously and didn't think I could be fired, as I know that according to the paragraph 23 of the Constitution, anyone has a right for the liberty of conscience," she said.

Court hearings will resume April 22.


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  Photo of the week
  Spring Rites
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Spring Rites

April 13 was "Tsaghkazard", known in other places as Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, marking the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. Here, part of the commemoration includes making wreaths from branches which are worn by young people and then placed in homes. The day is also the seventh Sunday of the Great Fast, as observed among the Armenian Apostolic Church.



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