Features | 09.05.08 | 16:00
No Alternative?: Jehovah’s Witness refuses optional military service
Faith-abiding vs law-abiding…
The Vanadzor (Lori province) court of general authority recognized 18-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Petrosyan guilty based on part 1 article 327 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia (for avoiding military service).
The Law on Alternative Service is in effect since 2004 which provides conditions for alternative service for members of religious organizations. Article 2 of the law stipulates, “Alternative service is a special state service delivered by the citizen of the Republic of Armenia not related to carrying, keeping, maintaining and using weapon.”
However in the court Petrosyan had stated he refused both the military and alternative ways of service.
“I don’t tolerate service independent of what work I perform, because I will have to be under the Ministry of Defense in either case,” the young defendant says.
“If a person does not tolerate theft, how can he tolerate being called a thief?” this is the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses see the military and the alternative services.
Petrosyan is the youngest in the family. His brother and two sisters are Jehovah’s Witnesses. His mother, eldest brother and the third sister call themselves believers and are not members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Petrosyan, has been taking part in the organization’s gatherings since he was five and joined it as a member at the age of 12.
There are about 9,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia, 180 of them in Vanadzor.
The law says there are two types of alternative service: alternative military and alternative working.
In the first case, the service is organized within the armed forces; in the second case, service is held in various organizations.
Lawyer Rustam Khachatryan, member to the Chamber of Lawyers of Armenia says 65 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sentenced to imprisonment for avoiding service so far; 10 Witnesses are detained at the moment.
The lawyer believes the law on alternative service contradicts European standards. He cites article 14 of the law that stipulates the provision of service be within the authority of the Ministry of Defense.
In 2005, Khachatryan defended 21 young people in the court, all Jehovah’s witnesses.
“They voluntarily chose alternative service after the adoption of law believing it was a real alternative service,” Khachatryan recalls.
However, a week after the service military police and the prosecutor’s office began checking the young men and hindering relatives’ visits, calling home, participating in spiritual gatherings.
Jehovah’s Witness Shaliko Sargsyan is one of the 21 men who left the service.
As he served in the Nork Hospital of Infectious Illnesses in late 2004, he realized the service was alternative only nominally.
“It was not only not carrying a weapon for me that mattered but also that I am not called a soldier,” says Shaliko, who recalls he used to be under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense and had to obey it.
That was the reason that despite his work in the hospital was to take care of the patients and help them, he left it after several months of service.
“If I am in an alternative service, why did they try me like a deserter?” asks the Jehovah’s Witness.
The defense of the 21 young men’s rights finished after the RA Prosecutor General’s office dropped the case.
The lawyer cites the adoption of the law on civil service as one of the obligations undertaken by Armenia before the Council of Europe, yet not adopted.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) reminded Armenia of its obligation in early 2007 ordering to adopt the law immediately.
“The Council of Europe has warned there should be no prisoner of conscience before the adoption of the law,” says Khachatryan.
The issue of tolerance to Jehovah’s witnesses in Armenia is debated in society as soon as the law on alternative service was adopted. In Vanadzor few have neutral position in this regard and most have negative attitudes towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“They pervert our religion,” complains Yeghishe Derzyan, 80. “They say they would not carry a weapon only to avoid military service.”
During the court case Petrosyan said he refuses having a defender while his family say they would not protest the court’s decision.