The Armenian government announced on Thursday plans to enact a bill which it said will help to put an end to the long-running imprisonment of young men refusing military service on religious grounds.
Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian revealed that his ministry is already working on relevant amendments to an Armenian law that offers male citizens an alternative to the two-year military duty.
The law was passed in 2003 and went into force in 2004 under pressure from the Council of Europe. Its main beneficiaries were supposed to be members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization that has long been at loggerheads with the Armenian authorities over its strong opposition to the compulsory service.
The U.S.-based group rejected the alternative service on the grounds that it is overseen by the Armenian military and lasts for at least three years. Draft age men affiliated with Jehovah’s Witnesses have continued to be imprisoned for draft evasion since then.
Artur Ispirian, a Jehovah’s Witnesses lawyers, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that more than 40 such men are currently in prison. He said most of them have lodged lawsuits against the Armenian government at the European Court of Human Rights.
Late last year and early this year, the Strasbourg-based court ruled against the government in three such cases brought by former conscientious objectors. It ordered the authorities in Yerevan to pay each of the plaintiffs 10,000 euros ($12,600) in damages.
Tovmasian asked the government to authorize the payment of the fines during a weekly cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian. He also mentioned a “fairly large number” of similar cases filed by other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We are negotiating with them,” Tovmasian told the government. “Some of them are now in prison, serving prison sentences.”
“I think that as a result of changes in this law [on alternative service] it will be possible to ensure that they withdraw their lawsuits,” he said.
“The negotiations have taken place between a lawyer representing those young men and a representative of the Justice Ministry,” confirmed Ispirian. “It’s still too early to say whether or not they will withdraw their lawsuits.” He said their main demand is their release from jail.
Speaking to journalists, Tovmasian declined to elaborate on the planned amendments to the law. He said only that they are meant to make the alternative service “more acceptable” to conscientious objectors.
The activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-traditional religious groups have been a cause for serious concern for the government-backed Armenian Apostolic Church, to which more than 90 percent of Armenians nominally belong. Top clerics of the ancient church and its most ardent followers have long been pressing the government to crack down on the “sects,” accusing them of attracting adherents through deceit and material benefits.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have always denied the church allegations. According to Ispirian, the group currently numbers about 11,000 members in Armenia.