European Court to consider important case on
conscientious objection in Armenia
YEREVAN, Armenia—On December 12, 2006, a young man’s claim that the Republic of Armenia violated his freedom of conscience and religion was declared admissible by the European Court of Human Rights.
Vahan Bayatyan is one of many young Jehovah’s Witnesses prosecuted and imprisoned in Armenia for refusing to violate their Bible-trained consciences by participation in any form of military service. After he was sentenced to a prison term of one and a half years by the trial judge, the Prosecutor appealed asking for a harsher sentence, claiming that Mr. Bayatyan’s conscientious objection was “unfounded and dangerous.” The Court of Appeal acquiesced, increasing the prison term by one year. This decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court.
Having exhausted all domestic remedies, Mr. Bayatyan filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights. In his application, he asked the Court to reconsider its past jurisprudence regarding conscientious objectors and bring it in line with the current policy of the Council of Europe which requires new member states to recognize the right of conscientious objectors. In its admissibility decision, the European Court has accepted to examine this question. If Mr. Bayatyan is successful and the Court does recognize the right of conscientious objectors under Article 9 of the Convention, this will be a groundbreaking decision as it will be a major shift in the Court’s jurisprudence.
When Armenia joined the Council of Europe, it had taken a formal commitment to stop prosecuting conscientious objectors, to pardon those who were serving prison terms and to adopt a law on alternative civilian service. Instead of fulfilling these obligations, Armenia continues to prosecute and imprison conscientious objectors. Currently there are more than 60 conscientious objectors serving prison terms. Governmental authorities have even hardened their position recently by increasing prison terms for conscientious objectors and by refusing parole to 25 young Witnesses serving their prison terms. Even after serving prison sentences, punishment effectively continues for conscientious objectors since in many cases, the authorities refuse to give (or return) passport and registration documents upon their release, negatively impacting their opportunities for education and employment.
While Armenia did adopt a law on alternative labor service in 2004, this law, according to a recent Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution, is not “in compliance with European Standards.” Conscientious objectors who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are not accepting this alternative service, since it is under military control and supervision.
Resolution affirms that conscientious objectors should be
pardoned in Armenia
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a resolution that reaffirms the need for Armenia to comply with its commitments. Of particular interest to 68 imprisoned young men is the part of the resolution designed to protect the rights of those whose consciences will not allow them to participate in military service. The resolution confirms what Armenia has long ago agreed to and is still bound to uphold, namely their responsibility to release the young men imprisoned for conscientious objection, and to enact a genuine alternative civilian service.
The timing of the PACE resolution, passed on January 23, 2007, is significant since some prosecutors within Armenia have continued, even recently, to press for increasing the length of sentences for the young men who refuse military service, whereas Article 6.7 of the resolution clearly shows the need to go in a progressive direction:
6.7. As regards Armenia’s commitment to adopt a law on alternative service “in compliance with European standards” and “pardon all conscientious objectors sentenced to prison terms”, the Assembly is disappointed to note that the current law, as amended in 2005 and subsequently in June 2006, still does not offer conscientious objectors any guarantee of “genuine alternative service of a clearly civilian nature, which should be neither deterrent nor punitive in character”, as provided for by Council of Europe standards. It is deeply concerned that, for lack of a genuine form of civilian service, dozens of conscientious objectors, most of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses, continue to be imprisoned, since they prefer prison to an alternative service not of a truly civilian nature. The Assembly urges the Armenian authorities to revise the law on alternative service in accordance with the recommendations made by the Council of Europe experts currently studying this issue and, in the meantime, to pardon the young conscientious objectors currently serving prison sentences.
The majority of young men who are imprisoned for conscientious objection in Armenia are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Worldwide, the Witnesses are known for their emphasis on Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor.” (Matthew 22:39) Thus they have a reputation of being peaceful and law-abiding, with nonviolence as their code of conduct.
Phone +44 7775 833880
Phone +1 917 825 8068