J.W. v Armenia: Religious group unhappy with Strasbourg court decision

A Jehovah’s witness who spent nearly a year in prison for refusing to serve in the Armenian army is likely to appeal to a higher Strasbourg court chamber after the international judicial body resolved his “conscientious objector” case against Armenia in favor of the latter.

On October 27, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the Vahan Bayatyan v Armenia case not to satisfy the claim of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization member against the state, assuming as grounds mainly the circumstance that during his draft to the Armenian army (in 2001) Armenia did not have a law on alternative service (the law came into force only in 2004) and had not yet ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (it did so in April 2002).

The same day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization disseminated a statement in which it said that the European court does not defend the rights of conscientious objector.

(The law on alternative service says that a citizen subject to conscription to compulsory military service has the right to an alternative service if his faith or convictions are against compulsory military service in military units as well as against carrying, keeping, maintaining and using arms).

Bayatyan, 26, lives in Yerevan. He has been a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization since 1997. He was called up for military service in April 2001, however he refused as conscientious objector. In November 2002, he was found guilty in court and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The following month, the appeals court on criminal and military cases passed an even stricter sentence on Bayatyan – 30 months in prison. In July 2003, after serving out 10 ½ months of his sentence term, Bayatyan was paroled. He turned to the European court in 2005 complaining that his conviction by court for refusing to serve in the national army of Armenia was tantamount to violation of Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I really regret that such a decision was made. My lawyer and I have decided to apply, within three months, to the Grand Chamber of the European court to look into the case again,” Bayatyan told ArmeniaNow.

(Seven judges in the European court heard Bayatyan’s case; cases at the Grand Chamber are heard by 17 judges.)

At present, 71 Jehovah’s witnesses who refuse to serve in the army as conscientious objectors are jailed in Armenia. Helsinki Committee of Armenia Chairman Avetik Ishkhanyan thinks the reason for this is that these people were convicted not as deserters of alternative, but conventional service.

“They rejected the alternative service because they do not consider it fully civil. That is, their supervision is being made by the military, in the event of getting ill they are transferred to military hospital,” explains the human rights activist.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization also insists that the law on alternative service does not correspond to European standards and the demands of conscientious objectors, as this alternative service is under military control.

The annual International Religions Freedom Report 2009 released by the US State Department last week says that all of the prisoners [conscientious objectors] had been given the opportunity to serve an alternative to military service rather than prison time, “but refused because they objected to the fact that the military retained administrative control over the alternative service.”

The report also says that “other than Jehovah’s witnesses who were conscientious objectors, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.”