By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A key committee of the Armenian parliament unveiled on Tuesday a draft law that would allow conscientious objectors to avoid compulsory military service. Armenia undertook to enact such legislation before the end of 2003 when it was admitted into the Council of Europe just over a year ago.
The parliament committee on defense and security will open hearings on the bill on Wednesday. Representatives of the defense ministry are among those invited to attend the discussions.
Under Armenian law every male citizen aged at least 18 must serve in the armed forces for two years. The draft law provides for an alternative "civilian service" "under the supervision of the defense ministry." Only members of officially registered religious organizations opposed to military service would be eligible for it.
The list of non-military institutions where the civilian service could be performed would be set by the government. The parliament committee proposes to set its duration at 42 months. Civilian servicemen could have it curtailed by 12 months if they pay one million drams ($1,770) to the state. More importantly, they would not be allowed to hold any posts in the government, law-enforcement agencies and judiciary for the rest of their life.
The absence of a law offering an alternative to military duty means that dozens of young Armenian men, mostly members of Jehovah's Witnesses, are sent to jail every year for their religiously motivated refusal to carry weapons.
The U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report that 13 members of the religious group were in jail while 4 others were awaiting trial as of late last year. The report noted that during 2001 some 40 Jehovah's Witnesses were set free under a general amnesty declared in June.
The Armenian government's continuing refusal to formally legalize the cult and stop imprisoning its members has drawn strong criticism from the world's leading human rights watchdogs. According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities have "flouted" a Council of Europe requirement to ensure religious freedom by continuing to arrest, detain, and imprison Jehovah's Witnesses.
A similar report issued by Amnesty International last May also criticized Yerevan for not "acting in the spirit of its Council of Europe commitments with regard to conscientious objectors to compulsory military service."