Two of the 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses released from prison and embarked on alternative service at Norqi tun (‘House of Nork’) Senior Home mind of the elderly and work at construction sites.
‘Our kids are very helpful; they do anything you could imagine, they have cleaned all the surroundings, very good guys,’ says the Senior Home resident Marusya Sargsyan.
Sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for conscientious objection to military service, the 20-year-old David Araqelyan and Martiros Yesayan were released from custody on 24 October, 2013. This year on 13 January they have started their civilian service at a Senior Home.
After making amendments to the Law on Alternative Service in June the National Assembly granted the 140 Jehovah’s Witnesses a possibility to apply for civilian service not contradicting to their principles and the 71 of them is already carrying out their service. According to the information of the Head of RA Government Staff Ethnic Minorities and Religious Affairs Department Vardan Astsatryan, the 72 recruits have already started an alternative service.
There are no more prisoners of conscience convicted for religious views in the detention facilities of Armenia.
The administration is also satisfied with the young men:
‘They work and they help a lot,’ says the director of the Senior Home with 230 stakeholders Arthur Melqonyan. ‘They are rather useful for the residents. They mind of them, they help the grandfathers and the grandmothers move, when we call ambulance for someone they help them to take the car. They do much more than that. As the manager of the organization I see the results of their work, they don’t dodge but do it really well.’
Psychologist Melineh Abrahamyan says that the guys are very mindful, congenially carrying out the wishes of the residents.
The young men are also content:
‘Everyone treats us really well from the administration to the elderly,’ says David Araqelyan. ‘You are in freedom, your parents are near you, you help the elderly, you communicate with people. I have never dealt with the construction before, now I also work at the construction and in fact I’m already mastering it.’
He is sure that he will not suffer the fate of the others and that he will complete his service.
In 2003 Armenia adopted a law on alternative service. After that in 2004, 24 people – 22 Jehovah’s witnesses and one ‘Molokan’ among the latter, started to carry out an alternative service.
Nevertheless six months later the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Molokan abscented from service. They motivated it by the fact that they were under the command of the Ministry of Defense.
Their clothing and different supplies were provided by the Ministry of Defense and the supervision was carried out by military police. They didn’t have right to leave the place of duty.
Other than that they complained that for humiliation purposes they were forced to perform disparaging works. The Father of one young man claimed that his son was beaten by the manager of the hospital and that he had given him 100 dollars so that the former had no longer had assaulted his son.
15 people were convicted for 2-3 years in prison for desertion and absenting from the place of duty. They spent around 7 months in prison, and only due to the consistent struggle the local prosecution offices petitioned the courts to send the cases to trial, and the chief prosecutor’s office dismissed them for the lack of corpus delicti.
19 Jehovah’s witnesses appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
In the case of “Khachatryan and others v. Armenia” the application of the 17 was satisfied. Armenia had to pay 6,000 euros to each of them as well as a total of 10 000 euros covering the court costs.
In addition, other Jehovah’s Witnesses who suffered the penalty for conscientious objection also turned to the European Court of Justice, and the three of them, “Bayatyan vs. Armenia”, “Tsatouryan vs. Armenia” and “Bukharatyan vs. Armenia” also won the case.
Overall 142 thousand euros are to be paid by the state budget to the Jehovah’s witnesses that won the trials.
In order to avoid losses in the European Court the government had to make amendments in the Law on Alternative Service conforming it to European standards.
On 2 October, 2013 the president of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan announced at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe:
‘Those individuals who don’t wish to perform military service on conscientious grounds will according to our procedures be exempted from criminal liability.’
In line with the new amendment the service will last 3 years instead of the former 3.5 years and it will have no affiliation with the Ministry of Defense.
The servants go to their homes after performing their job duties from 9 to 6. They receive a salary of 30 thousand drams (around 85 dollars). For those who carry out their service 30 km further than their residence the state must rent an apartment.
The period spent in custody will be extracted from the term of the alternative service of the young men released from prison: David will serve for 2 years and 3 months (the 9 months spent in custody will be extracted) and Martiros will serve for 2.5 years (the 6 months will be extracted).
According to the decision of the Republican committee the Jehovah’s witnesses serve as orderlies, yard cleaners or kitchen workers. They perform works of non-military nature at medical establishments or orphanages.
According to the information of “Jehovah’s witnesses” organization, the service conditions are satisfying both at the Senior Home and other places:
‘They are treated well,’ the responsible for the Public Relations of the organization Tigran Harutyunyan says. ‘It is difficult to say anything about every single person’s conditions. In general the situation of regional residents is not regulated yet. They need to rent an apartment, to pay for the commodities and to mind their primary needs etc. I think those issues will also be regulated soon.’
The young men claim that not only the service is not contradicting to their principles but that it is even supporting it:
‘I had addressed the government for this is the service I wanted to perform, the one that wouldn’t contradict my principles. And now the state has provided me with it,’ says David Araqelyan. ‘It is also supporting my principles: I have been taught that you need to love another person as you do yourself, to treat others as you would like to be treated. I help people. I have also learned that you need to be obedient to the authority, so I’m obedient both to administration and state government. The administration even assisted me in the regulation of my health issue and I’m very thankful for this.’
Because of the lack of alternative service throughout the independence years 480 Jehovah’s witnesses have been sentenced to prison for conscientious objection in Armenia (see the documentary film ‘Expectation’ about the privations of Jehovah’s witnesses here).
Photos by Nazik Armenakyan