As the year nears its end the Armenian government has approved the justice minister’s bill on amendments and changes to the controversial law on Alternative Military Service.
The law in force since 2004 has, as minister Hrayr Tovmasyan says, a number of shortcomings, hindering regulation of the order by which alternative service should be carried out to match the legal state demands.
“Those on alternative service are controlled by the military, which contradicts the religious beliefs of a great number of those applying for alternative service. Moreover military control is set not only in case of alternative service, but also alternative labor service,” says Tovmasyan.
Human rights advocates believe the government took up this bill in haste only after the European Court of Human Rights satisfied the claim of 19 Jehovah’s witnesses “Khachatryan and others against the Republic of Armenia” (on November 27). Each claimant has to be paid $6,000 euro compensation from the Armenian state, as well as $10,000 to cover the general legal expenses for filing the lawsuit, etc. This case has caused 112,000-euro damage to the state budget.
“The law on alternative service is simply not acting in Armenia. Even after passing that law Jehovah’s Witnesses continue serving terms in prison for refusing army service on religious grounds. Their latest victory made our authorities realize that the amendments have to be introduced as quickly as possible, otherwise the state budget would repeatedly suffer great damage,” Helsinki Committee Armenian office leader Avetik Ishkhanyan told ArmeniaNow.
Violin teacher Hayk Khachatryan started his alternative service on December 29, 2004, he deserted on May 23, 2005. He was taken into custody and spent eight months in pre-trial prison.
“The first issue is that my religious beliefs were ignored, we were told that the service was civil, yet it turned out to be military. At the place of service they were forced to work overtime up until 11 p.m.-12 a.m.; no proper food, expired preserves,” Khachatryan told ArmeniaNow. “We lived off our parent’s means and with their support. Whenever I had health issues, they’d tell me I was faking it and wouldn’t show me medical assistance.”
Together with Khachatryan there were 22 other Jehovah’s Witnesses who deserted six months later;19 were put to jail, among them 15 were convicted of defection and sentenced to 2-3 years of prison. Seven months later they were all released, the prosecutor general suspended their case for lack of corpus delicti.
Helsinki Citizen Assembly Vanadzor office leader Artur Sakunts told ArmeniaNow that the law on Alternative Service is a “dead law”. By several provisions it is breaching the criteria on alternative service set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“First of all the alterative service term has been 42 months, which is twice as much as military service, and that in itself is a violation. The other issue is the humiliating conditions of service,” says Sakunts.
Helsinki’s Ishkhanyan points out another shortcoming of the law.
“Alternative service was under the defense ministry control. They were supervised by the military police, the ministry was providing equipment and gear. Military police officers were paying periodical visits, during which they’d force them to line up, which was against their religious beliefs,” says Ishkhanyan.
The European Court of Human Rights pays attention not only to the adoption of the law, but also to its proper application.
Sakunts says NGOs submitted a similar proposal years ago and are now willing to assist the amendment process.
“At the time there was no political will, and only now, after the European Court ruling, they have taken up the initiative to amend the law which will also be enacted in practice,” he says.
The new bill introduces differentiation between alternative military service and alternative labor service based on the fact whether the denomination or religious beliefs of the person in question totally deny service at a military unit or only possessing, carrying or using weapons.
The amendments call for cutting down the term of alternative military service to 30 months, and alternative labor service to 36 months.
Ishkhanyan, in reference to those escaping military service, says there is a difference between those who avoid illegally and those who openly refuse to serve.
“Jehovah’s Witness simply refuse to serve on religious grounds. They don’t bribe, don’t find acquaintances to avoid service illegally, they go and declare their refusal to serve. While official data show that since 2002 more than 10,000 men have avoided military service, there are 444 Jehovah’s witnesses versus this huge amount,” he says.
Sakunts says that between 1998 and 2012 by government decrees related to the law on military service, 659 clergymen of the Armenian Apostolic Church have been either relieved of compulsory military service or their service has been postponed.