Armenia: There can be no exemptions to the right to freedom of conscience and religion

People in Armenia are beaten and imprisoned because of their beliefs. Members of the religious organization Jehovah’s Witnesses are increasingly becoming victims of the violation of their rights to freedom of expression, conscience and liberty, Amnesty International said in a report published today.

The report, Armenia: Fear of the freedom of conscience and religion: violations of the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses, outlines the organization’s concerns regarding discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses, an estimated 9,000 in the country. Central to these concerns are the issues of conscientious objection and of impunity relating to physical assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Young male Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be imprisoned in ever larger numbers and for longer periods because their beliefs prohibit them from performing military service. Since there is no genuinely civilian alternative service in Armenia at present, Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release,” said Laurence Broers, Amnesty International’s researcher on Armenia.

As a Council of Europe member Armenia has undertaken the obligation to provide a genuinely civilian alternative to compulsory military service for those whose beliefs do not allow them to take up arms. However, Armenia’s alternative service is still under the control of the military, making it incompatible with the conscientiously-held beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. As of 26 September 2007 there were 82 Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors in Armenia.

“All those wrongly imprisoned must be released immediately and receive adequate compensation. The Armenian authorities must also ensure that they are not denied documents necessary for them to enjoy full rights as civilians – including the right to freedom of movement, for which passports are required, and the rights to entry into public sector employment or marriage,” Laurence Broers said.

As the Jehovah’s Witnesses have expanded their activities after registration as a religious organization in 2004, both verbal and physical attacks against them have also seemingly been on the rise. Amnesty International is concerned that the reported failure of the police to investigate fully and impartially and, where appropriate, prosecute such human rights violations, sends the signal that assaults and wider discrimination are permissible.  

“The Armenian authorities are ignoring the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are specifically targeted for attacks, including allegedly by representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Acknowledging the discriminatory aspect to these attacks is a necessary step toward countering discrimination and impunity,” said Laurence Broers.

Amnesty International urges the Armenian authorities to:

introduce a genuinely civilian and non-punitive alternative to compulsory military service; ensure prompt, thorough and impartial investigation and prosecution of physical attacks as a step to end impunity with regard to physical assaults against Jehovah’s Witnesses; ensure that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other registered religious groups can exercise their rights without discrimination or hindrance.

Background Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in Armenia since 1975. They first requested legal registration as a religious organization in 1995 and after being rejected about 15 times, they were finally registered in 2004.  

Aspects of the organization’s activities in Armenia have become a source of friction with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the leading religious denomination in the country. Some 90 per cent of the population are members, at least formally, of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  

The Constitution as amended by referendum in 2005 recognizes “the exclusive historical mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national church”, while the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations grants the Armenian Apostolic Church official status as the national church.

See:Armenia: Fear of the freedom of conscience and religion: violations of the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses