Armenia’s government appears to be dragging its feet over changing the rules for military conscription, a year after a pan-European court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses had been mistreated as conscientious objectors.
In November 2011, the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, ruled that Armenia should pay compensation to 17 men who were detained and wrongly accused of desertion.
In 2005, the men withdrew from a civilian service scheme intended to give committed pacifists like Jehovah’s Witnesses an alternative to mandatory conscription. Civilian service had been launched the previous year as part of Armenia’s obligations as a Council of Europe member.
The men were assigned civilian work in schools, hospitals and elsewhere, but left six months later when they realised they were actually under military command, something that went against their absolute commitment to pacifism.
“We were told this was civilian service, but it turned out to be military after all,” said Hayk Khachatryan, one of the 17 men who were arrested, held in detention for months and charged with desertion.
The ECHR found that since Armenia had no legislation that made it a crime to withdraw from alternative service, detaining and charging the men was unlawful.
In response to the ruling, the Armenian government acknowledged that military control of civilian service was a problem, and began drafting changes to the law in March 2012.
The amendments now being proposed would differentiate between “alternative military service” and “alternative labour service” – the latter structured to rule out any military involvement, so that the most committed of conscientious objectors could take part.
Alternative military service would last 30 months, and alternative labour service 36 months, as opposed to the standard two years served by conscript soldiers.
Ten months on, it is unclear when the draft amendments will be completed by the justice ministry committee tasked with producing them.
Artur Ispiryan, who works for the legal department of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said, “The first version of the bill said that regional governors would oversee alternative service… but that point was removed. At the moment, it isn’t clear what this will be replaced with, but it’s essential that supervision is exclusively civilian in nature. That isn’t just what we want; it’s an international standard.”
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, around 30 of their members are currently in jail for refusing to perform military service. Courts in Armenia are currently reviewing 25 cases, so further convictions are possible.
Several dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses still have complaints pending at the ECHR, and the government has asked them to withdraw their cases while the law is changed.
Stepan Danielyan, head of the Cooperation for Democracy Centre, believes the government remains wary of changing the law, even though the ECHR ruling made it clear this was essential.
“The delay stems from the fact that the defence ministry and the government have no clear idea about what to do with the law,” Danielyan said. “They don’t want a conflict with the OSCE or with other international organisations. But on the other hand, passing the legal amendments could be risky because there are also other people who don’t want to do military service out of conviction.”
Alexander Amaryan heads the Centre for Assistance and Rehabilitation for Victims of Destructive Sects, which is hostile to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he claims that conscription-age men join the group simply to get out of joining the army.
“For young people who don’t want to serve in the army, the easiest way of avoiding it is to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they are happy to provide membership lists to show that this is not the case.
“It isn’t that easy to become a Jehovah’s Witness,” Ispiryan said in response to the allegation of fraudulent members. “There have been no cases of this.”
Trainee priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the country’s main faith group, are able to avoid conscription. But church spokesman Vahram Melikyan insisted that Apostolic Church clergy should not be compared with others who decided not to join the military.
In addition, he said, “There are cases where our students don’t take up their exemption and go off to serve in the army for two years, and then return to continue their [seminary] education.”
Avetik Ishkhanyan, head of the Armenian Helsinki Group, said the government should focus on real draft-dodgers. Official figures show that since 2002, about 10,000 people have avoided conscription, and only 444 of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist with ArmeniaNow.com.