Several students from a pressure group protesting against restrictions on draft deferments went on a hunger strike in Yerevan as Armenian lawmakers began to debate the controversial bill in its second reading on Tuesday.
The protests sparked by the legislation considerably restricting draft deferment opportunities for students, including those wishing to pursue scientific careers, entered their second week today.
Several hundred students have been boycotting classes since November 7, going around the campus of Yerevan State University, Armenia’s oldest and largest educational establishment, and urging their fellow-students to join their protest, as well as marching towards government building to show their disagreement with the bill already passed in its first reading late last month.
Representatives of the protesting students were received by Armenia’s prime minister, education and defense ministers, but they did not agree to stop their protests even after being offered to join the work on drafting relevant decisions after the adoption of the law.
The bill stipulates that in order to get a draft deferment all male students who want to pursue their studies must sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense and agree to serve three years in the military after completing their studies at the location chosen by the Ministry. Otherwise, the students will be drafted to the army once they attain the age of 18.
The protesting students as well as several opposition parties and public figures in Armenia believe this measure will only harm the development of science in the country as it will imply interruptions in the education process or will otherwise discourage the few students who want to pursue scientific careers.
Five members of the group called ‘For Science Development’ locked themselves inside one of the lecture rooms of the Faculty of Sociology, Informatics and Applied Mathematics of Yerevan State University, saying they will stop their hunger strike only after the bill is withdrawn from parliament.
Among the hunger-strike participants is also student and activist David Petrosian. He told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that they in particularly protest against the parliament’s decision to proceed with the discussions of the bill without paying heed to their concerns and without making any changes in it before the second reading.
“Besides, with this hunger strike we try to show to all citizen that their voice matters… Public apathy that has spread among us is very sad. And this way we contribute to the overcoming of this apathy,” the activist said.
Petrosian, who already served in the army, said that three other students in the five-member group also completed their military service. “Four of us have served in the army. And by this we want to prove that this is a movement for fairness and justice,” he said.
Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian has also repeatedly stated that the new bill is aimed at restoring justice among those male students who get draft deferments and exemptions from military service and those who don’t. He has insisted that its aim is not to man the military. The minister and other government officials believe that the law will not harm science in any way, but will only eliminate corruption by closing a key loophole to avoiding compulsory military service.
Activist Petrosian, meanwhile, urged other students engaged in the protests to continue to focus on boycotting classes. He answered RFE/RL’s questions from behind a closed door, saying that the group had decided to keep the door to the lecture room shut even to other students, including those who may wish to join the hunger strike.
Meanwhile, about three dozen students of the Yerevan State Conservatory also joined the protest held on the Yerevan State University campus.