Amid ongoing tension with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, controversy is growing in Armenia about a proposal that would liberalize the terms of alternative service for religiously motivated conscientious objectors to the draft.
Under Armenian law, all men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve two years in the armed forces. Although Armenia has had a law on alternative service since 2004, its provisions have “not been applied in practice,” asserted human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian. Men who refuse for religious reasons to perform alternative service under the supervision of military personnel often have received prison terms.
Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – a Christian-oriented sect that espouses millennial beliefs and whose members shun military service – have been particularly affected: Over the past decade, 274 Jehovah’s Witnesses have done jail time for failing to fulfill alternative service obligations, according to Ishkhanian. The Armenian government has long been under international pressure to scrap the practice of jailing conscientious objectors. In November 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Armenian government to pay 112,000 euros ($142,338) in damages to 19 Jehovah’s Witnesses who were so treated.
The Armenian parliament approved the alternative service amendments in their first reading on March 18 by a 103-1 vote. After the vote, MPs sent the amendments back to the government for some tweaking. No information was immediately available about what changes the MPs were seeking.
The lone MP to vote against the amendments was Shushan Petrosian, a member of the governing Republican Party who is also a well-known singer. "This is an issue when I just can't agree with the government and with my party colleagues, " Petrosian said. "My belief is that every boy who has no health problem should serve in the Armenian army."
Under the amendments in their present form, military personnel would no longer supervise work done as an alternative to military service, and the number of required months of alternative service would be reduced to 30 from 42. “We need this law because the one we have is not effective, and at this moment more than 80 people have preferred to go to prison and are now in penitentiaries, rather than do alternative service,” Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian commented to EurasiaNet.org.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesperson Tigran Harutyunian, the amendments offer a welcome break from the past, when believers had to opt for either a three-year prison term, or alternative service that “contradicted their religious beliefs” and involved “humiliating” working conditions. Alternative service currently includes street cleaning, as well as hospital maintenance and guard work, mostly in psychiatric hospitals. District military officers are required to supervise the work done at least once a day. “We are hoping now that there will, in fact, be an alternative,” said Harutiunian.
Not all members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia are content with the potential changes. Concerns persist, amid a rise in Karabakh ceasefire violations, that Armenia cannot afford to let able-bodied men to avoid military service. When Justice Minister Tovmasian submitted the amendments to parliament on February 27, MP Hayk Babukhanian complained that the amendments would give a “green light” to “sectarians” to effectively draft-dodge. Babukhanian and other Republican Party MPs predict that many young Armenian men will join religious groups specifically to avoid military service.
“The growth of sect numbers in our country is already a matter of national security,“ Babukhanian told EurasiaNet.org. He claimed that “various research” shows that “300,000 to 350,000 Armenians today belong to some denominations.
Human rights advocate Avetik Ishkhanian cited Babukhanian’s comments on sects to point out “how intolerant our lawmakers are toward religious minorities.” Armenia has no state religion, but the Armenian Apostolic Church is viewed as central to the country’s historical identity.
While some Republican Party MPs are clearly disgruntled, senior party leaders in parliament, such as Koryun Nahapetian, chair of the Standing Committee on National Security and Internal Affairs, are strongly supportive. “These legislative changes and amendments of some other related laws will guarantee that the law [on alternative service] truly serves its purpose,“ Nahapetian said. “After all, the right to freedom of religion and conscience is first of all established in the Constitution of Armenia, and it is our duty to protect it.”
Some human rights activists believe that the government is less interested in defending civil rights than it is in avoiding additional negative rulings by international courts. “The government is not worried about protecting the rights of religious minorities, but is seriously concerned about the cases it has been losing,” said Mikael Danielian, chairperson of the Helsinki Association, a human rights watchdog.
Independent MP Edmon Marukian, who, as a human rights activist in 2003, took part in discussions about the alternative-service law, contends that the government has only itself to blame for the costs incurred. “It was clear right from the beginning that … people will refuse to serve on religious grounds, and, rather than creating favorable conditions to use their potential somewhere else, the state has convicted them, used taxpayers’ money to keep them in penitentiaries, and is now paying 100,000 euros in compensation for illegal imprisonment,” Marukian said.
The parliamentary debate over the amendments is continuing, but Marukian feels certain they will be adopted. “After all, it’s a government project, and [the Republicans] make up the government, so they won’t go against it.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.