- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
July 2, 2004

Guns and God: State offers alternative to army service for those with religious objections

The law on “Alternative Military Service” came into force on July 1.

Those who refuse to carry guns from religious conviction can now apply to military enlistment offices for exemption from service before the next draft call-up on September 1. Instead of 24 months in the military, however, they will be required to complete an alternative conscription of 36 or 42 months.

Until now, military service has been obligatory for all young males in Armenia without exception. The alternative service will take two forms: conscripts serving 36 months will undergo training in the army but carry out non-combatant tasks, while those who refuse to enter the military must spend 42 months on a form of civilian service in hospitals, elderly homes and other social provision.

Sedrak Sedrakyan says only a few are expected to seek alternative military servicer

“It is not clear how many applications there will be, however, we can suppose there won’t be more than 30. That number won’t essentially influence the armed forces,” says Sedrak Sedrakyan, head of the Legal Department at the Ministry of Defense.

“At present, certain ministries have offered places for alternative service and of course the work will be organized at those places. On the instructions of the Prime Minister invitations were sent to almost all government departments.”

Adoption of the law on alternative service was one of the obligations undertaken by Armenia when it entered into membership of the Council of Europe. The law was adopted in January this year.

Within the last four to five months, the Government and National Assembly have been conducting discussions and making amendments to the law with the purpose of making it enforcable. The changes concern the type of service, social security, responsibility for the conscripts, and issues such as uniform.

International experts from the Council of Europe have criticized the terms set for the alternative military service. They consider them to be too long and something akin to a punishment. They argue that the service periods should be the same whether the conscript completes military or civilian service in order to protect the rights of the individual.

“We are going to adopt two principles. Our army will remain the army founded on the basis of obligatory military service and we will offer an alternative not in its civil sense but as a concession towards it,” says Vahan Hovhannisyan, author of the draft law and a leading member of the Dashnak fraction in Parliament.

There was wide-ranging agreement among all parliamentary forces during the debates on adoption of the law, even though it was recognized that Armenia did not intend to fulfill every element of the obligations undertaken to the Council of Europe.

The law stipulates the possibility of the alternative service exceptionally on the grounds of religious conviction, but does mention philosophical objections such as pacifism. Applicants for exemption must apply to the Ministry of Defense and convince officials that they hold particular religious views that prevent them from serving in the military.

Human rights groups say the law is flawed and will be practically useless. Avetik Ishkhanyan, the chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, says: “I think the law’s provisions will simply remain on paper. It is punitive in itself.”

Representatives of national minorities such as Yezidis and Molokans, undergo military service in the Armenian army. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, say that military service is in direct contradiction to their religious beliefs.

Their refusal to serve in the army has led to a series of prosecutions and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, bringing criticism of the Government from the Council of Europe and other international bodies or religious intolerance. Twenty Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in prison despite demands for their release by the Council of Europe.

“This law is a method of fulfilling their responsibility towards the state for religious communities whose convictions prohibit carrying guns,” says Sedrakyan, of the Defense Ministry.

“With this law, at least the problem of bringing criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses will not appear any more.”

He doesn’t share the view that such an approach can drive young people towards sectarian organizations to avoid the army. Alternative service conscripts will be called up to special divisions and representatives of some specific religious minorities will serve together.

“They will serve in the armed forces of Armenia but not in military detachments. They will serve in one detachment and will do their duty without carrying guns,” says Sedrakyan.

“Citizens who have no religious convictions won’t be undergoing service together with them. Our goal is to provide such conditions so that they do not create obstacles for each other.”

Another law has entered into force since March 1 this year, which permits those who have dodged the draft by going abroad and who are aged at least 27 to buy a pardon from the Defense Ministry.

At least 5,000 men are in this category, according to the ministry. They have to pay a fine for every call-up they avoided up to a maximum of 1.8 million drams (about $3,400). Sedrakyan says the cases of about 150 people have been considered so far and all of them have had positive outcomes.

“Our preliminary calculations show that they owe some 120-125 million drams and that 80 million drams have already been transferred to the Defense Ministry,” says Sedrakyan.

He thinks the majority of applicants want to put the issue behind them so that they can once more freely enter and leave the country since their relatives remain in Armenia.

“The law will help many citizens to restore their status and afford an opportunity to visit Armenia and to leave it freely if they wish,” says Sedrakyan.

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