The religious minority group in Armenia, Jehovah’s Witnesses, has again been in the focus of public attention in the past several days after two of its members won cases against the government at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, the Public Television of Armenia last week made a rare retraction of its earlier “false statements” about a double murder linked to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the session of the government last Thursday Armenia’s acting Minister of Justice Hrayr Tovmasyan asked the Cabinet to allocate 30,000 euros (about $38,000) from the reserve funds to be paid as compensation in cases lost by the Republic of Armenia at the ECHR (in each case the court in Strasbourg awarded the claimants 10,000 euros). The winning parties in two of the three cases are conscientious objectors representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. In Armenia they were subjected to criminal liability for refusing to serve in the army, which is an obligation in the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses applied to the ECHR over the matter.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses members who had been imprisoned were enabled to apply to the European Court after Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001.
In 2003, Armenia adopted the Law on Alternative Service, which seemed to have finally provided a means to resolve the differences between members of religious organizations refusing to serve in the military and the state. However, all members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are imprisoned today did pass alternative military services for a month or two, but then refused to continue, which, as the acting minister of justice said, gives grounds to assume that the law has not justified itself.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Public Relations officer Tigran Harutyunyan told ArmeniaNow that at present 40 members of the organization are in prison, of whom 20 have filed suits with the ECHR (today there are about 11,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia).
According to Tovmasyan, the government is negotiating with the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization for them to withdraw their suits from the ECHR, besides amendments have been drafted to the Law on Alternative Service and these amendments are expected to be submitted to the National Assembly this fall.
Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office head Artur Sakunts, too, believes that Jehovah’s Witnesses organization members are winning cases against the Government of Armenia at the ECHR because of the flaws in the current Law on Alternative Service.
“The law was a stillbirth at the moment of its adoption, as it is punitive in nature and does not provide a real opportunity of alternative service to conscientious objectors,” the human rights activist told ArmeniaNow.
According to Sakunts, one of the violations of the standards set by the OSCE for alternative service is that the duration of alternative service in Armenia is much longer than the period of ordinary military service (42 months against 24 months in ordinary military service).
“In Armenia the Law on Alternative Service has some strange things about it as both alternative labor service and alternative military service are under the control of the military, meanwhile, they should be overseen by civilian institutions,” explained Sakunts, adding that the conditions of passing alternative service do not correspond to the requirements of the OSCE and have “an attitude of humiliating human dignity.”
“It is necessary to think about changing the law instead of conducting negotiations,” said the human rights activist.
Meanwhile, in a related development the Public Television of Armenia on June 5 provided a retraction of false statements made about Jehovah’s Witnesses more than a year ago when it cited unverified reports linking an alleged double patricide to this religious organization. That reporting then caused public discontent aimed at the religious group in Armenia.
Jehovah’s Witnesses took legal action against the broadcaster resulting in a corresponding settlement agreement last month.