By Karine Kalantarian
Four young men affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses were reported on Friday to have fled a medical institution in central Armenia, highlighting the controversial nature of an alternative to compulsory military service offered by the authorities to conscientious objectors.
Lieutenant-Colonel Artur Galstian of the Armenian Defense Ministry’s main personnel recruitment unit said the four members of the U.S.-based Christian sect strongly opposed to military duty “deserted” from a psychiatric clinic in Sevan on Thursday. The Armenian military is now trying to establish their whereabouts and have them return to the clinic where they served as hospital attendants.
Galstian also revealed that 11 other men doing similar work elsewhere in Armenia want to be discharged from the service. Only one of them wants to join the army, the others being ready to face jail, he said.
Hrach Keshishian, the leader of the Armenia branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, confirmed the information, saying that the young men protest at being technically considered members of the Armed Forces.
“The problem is not where they serve,” Keshishian told RFE/RL. “Those are civilian institutions such as a psychiatric clinic or elderly people’s home. The problem is that they are [treated like] soldiers and subordinated to a military organization. That is why they say that their conscience does not allow them to do such service.”
The Armenian authorities reluctantly introduced the alternative service in June 2004 in accordance with its obligations to the Council of Europe. A relevant law allows young men refusing the two-year military service on religious or other grounds to spend three-and-a-half years performing civilian tasks outside Armenian army units.
More than two dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses have since enlisted for the alternative service. Most of them are unhappy with both their status and conditions of the service. The conscientious objectors were recently visited and interviewed by members of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization.
“Their main complaint was that they are being overseen by the military police and the military prosecutor’s office,” said the committee’s chairman, Avetik Ishkhanian. “Their plight was particularly difficult at the beginning when they were told to clean toilets and do other degrading things.”
According to Keshishian, that is why 11 other Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused the alternative service and been imprisoned by courts since last summer.
Dozens of other members of the sect had been sentenced to up to two years in prison before the enactment of the law on alternative service. The practice was repeatedly condemned by the Council of Europe and other international human rights bodies.
The Armenian authorities formally legalized activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses last October under pressure from the Council of Europe. Their reluctance to do so was motivated by the religious group’s perceived threat to the quasi-official Armenian Apostolic Church and, more importantly, its opposition to military service.