By Emil Danielyan
An Armenian bill giving male citizens an alternative to compulsory military service was passed in the final reading on Wednesday after undergoing substantial changes since being submitted to parliament two months ago. It will come into force next July.
Bowing to pressure from the Council of Europe, authors of the legislation led by deputy speaker Vahan Hovannisian amended it to provide for an optional, distinctly civilian service for those young Armenian men who wish to stay away from army units on religious or other grounds. The length of such service is 42 months or nearly twice as much as that of the two-year military duty.
The initial version of the bill only allowed draft objectors to avoid carrying weapons by performing non-combat tasks inside military units. The restriction was deemed by Council of Europe officials and experts to contradict European standards.
The alternative military service has an optional character in the amended bill. Those who opt for it will have to spend three years in army barracks.
In another important change, the National Assembly agreed to the Strasbourg-based organization’s demands that the alternative service apply to every male citizen rather than only members of non-traditional religious groups opposed to the military.
Yerevan has for years faced international criticism for prosecuting and jailing members of such sectors, notably Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least 23 of them were reported to be custody as of late 2002.
Introduction of the alternative service was one of the conditions for Armenia’s and its arch-foe Azerbaijan’s acceptance into the Council of Europe. With the two countries technically remaining in a state of war, some Armenians expressed concern that the legislation could weaken their conscription-based armed forces.
Hovannisian has repeatedly allayed such fears, saying he thinks that only several dozen young men will legally evade the much shorter military duty.
The parliament also passed on Wednesday another army-related bill that enables those men who have evaded military service since 1992 to buy a legal pardon. The draft dodgers aged 27 and older may thus be exempted from criminal prosecution in exchange for a hefty fee. Those who have spent ten years on the run will, for example, will have to pay 2 million drams ($3,500) to avoid imprisonment.
According to unofficial estimates, the measure will concern between 15,000 and 16,000 Armenians. Many of them fled Armenia in the early 1990s, during the war with Azerbaijan.
The legislation, drafted by Hovannisian and several other deputies, was approved by the government and the Armenian Defense Ministry in particular. It will only have a retroactive force.