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Armenia: Landmark Religious Freedom Ruling

Acquittal of Jehovah's Witness on draft-dodging charges praised by rights activists
By Ashot Gazazian

In a decision hailed by religious minorities and human rights groups, the Armenian appeal court has upheld the acquittal of a prominent Jehovah's Witness who'd been accused of inciting young men to avoid military service.

Levon Markarian's appeal hearing in Yerevan attracted a packed courtroom of supporters, human rights activists and observers from the official Armenian Apostolic church.

Markarian, a lawyer who works at the Armenian nuclear power station, was head of the Jehovah's Witnesses in the town of Armavir. He was charged under Article 244 of the Armenian criminal code of attracting young men into the sect and encouraging them to avoid military service. He was acquitted in a trial in Armavir in September and the appeal court upheld the judgement on March 7.

Both courts said that Markarian had committed no crime, because his actions did not contradict the Armenian constitution, which proclaims a citizen's right to freedom of conscience and worship. Jehovah's Witnesses say their faith prohibits them from serving in the army.

"The case against me was instigated by the Armenian Apostolic Church," said Markarian. "But I am proud that in Armenia there are really independent courts." The freed man's lawyer, Rustam Khachatrian, told reporters, "I believe that justice has triumphed. There was no evidence of a crime."

Human rights activist Michael Danielian, chairman of Armenia's Helsinki Association, noted that the trial had attracted enormous interest amongst Jehovah's Witnesses all over the world, but that the local media had largely ignored it.

He said that the Armenian authorities should now release 19 people found guilty of avoiding military service and stop persecuting people, who are awaiting trial for exactly the same reason.

The head of the OSCE mission in Yerevan, Roy Reeve, welcomed the acquittal of Markarian and said he hoped that the appeal court verdict would put an end to the matter.

Many Armenians, however, remain hostile or suspicious of the Jehovah's Witnesses. "I am for every man's freedom," said Gagik Bagdasarian, an artist. "But personally I don't like the Jehovah's Witnesses' persistence and unhealthy activity. I have the feeling that they want to improve my life against my will."

The official church, which dominates Armenian spiritual life, considers the sect downright dangerous. "The Armenian Apostolic Church is expending every effort to return the souls of those who have strayed from the true path," said Father Ter-Grigor, an Armenian priest.

Ter-Grigor said that members of the sect were drawing away church parishioners into a false faith, devised by overseas preachers and military service should be a honourable duty for every citizen of Armenia.

Armenia's 10,000 or so Jehovah's Witnesses are the only religious group in Armenia to face serious harassment. Russian Orthodox churches, synagogues, mosques and a church of the Seventh Day Adventists all operate freely.

Thousands of Kurds, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians and Greeks have emigrated to other countries in recent years, but this has had more to do with poor economic prospects than discrimination.

The acquittal of Markarian may be a result of Armenia's accession last year to the Council of Europe. Armenian citizens now have the right to appeal for international adjudication if they think their rights have been infringed.

However, many Armenians are nervous about the obligations the Council of Europe has committed them to. For instance, the council is asking Armenia to give greater freedom to homosexuals and to abolish the death penalty - both of which might prove unpopular. Yet most people realise that there is now no way back.

Ashot Gazazian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan