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NOVEMBER 5, 2013

Armenia Offers Alternative Civilian Service to Conscientious Objectors

Armenia Offers Alternative Civilian Service to Conscientious Objectors

The government of Armenia appears to have finally recognized the rights of those who conscientiously object to military service. On October 23, 2013, Armenia’s Republican Commission heard and granted the applications for alternative civilian service to 57 of more than 90 of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had applied for this new program (the Commission will also consider the remaining applications). Among those granted alternative service were 6 of the 20 Witnesses at the Erebuni Prison who had applied for the new program. These six prisoners were released on October 24, 2013. The Commission will consider the applications of the remaining imprisoned Witnesses who opt for alternative service and is expected to release those men who choose the program.

A New Program

These developments began when, on June 8, 2013, Armenia adopted amendments that bring Armenia’s Law on Alternative Service into harmony with European standards, and adopted enabling regulations on July 25, 2013. The president of Armenia referred to this recently amended law in his remarks to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on October 2, 2013, when he said: “People who do not want to serve in the army, because of their conscience, will be exempted from criminal liability under our procedures.” On October 3, 2013, Armenia adopted a law providing an amnesty that reduced the sentences of conscientious objectors by six months. Based on this amnesty, eight Witnesses who had less than six months remaining in their prison term were released on October 8 and 9, 2013.

The new program of alternative civilian service allows conscientious objectors the opportunity to contribute to their country in a way that may be acceptable to their Bible-trained conscience. It is now outside the control of the Armed Forces of Armenia and under civilian supervision. The term of civilian service is 36 months and requires 48 hours of work per week with 10 days of vacation per year. Those who apply will receive assignments close to their homes and will serve in non-military roles.

Steps Leading to the Amendments

When Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001, it undertook the obligation for all new member States to adopt a law on alternative service and release all conscientious objectors from prison. Despite its commitment, Armenia continued to prosecute and imprison young Witness men.

During the past 20 years, more than 450 of Jehovah’s Witnesses have served lengthy prison sentences, often enduring harsh conditions and severe treatment.

There was a glimmer of hope for conscientious objectors when the Republic of Armenia’s Law on Alternative Service came into force on July 1, 2004. Once implemented, however, the alternative service program proved to be under military supervision and control and to be punitive. The Council of Europe repeatedly pointed out that the alternative service program was not in harmony with European standards. For example, in Resolution 1532 (2007), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed that it was “deeply concerned that, for lack of a genuine form of civilian service, dozens of conscientious objectors, most of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses, continue to be imprisoned, since they prefer prison to an alternative service not of a truly civilian nature.”

The UN Human Rights Committee also expressed concern that Armenia continued to imprison Witness conscientious objectors. In its concluding observations from its 105th session (2012), the Committee said:

“The State party should put in place a real alternative to military service, which is genuinely non-military, accessible to all conscientious objectors and neither punitive nor discriminatory in nature, cost or duration. The State party should also release all conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing to perform the military service or the existing alternative to military service.”

Relief Provided by the ECHR

Finding no relief in Armenian courts, Vahan Bayatyan and two other young Witness men who had been convicted filed applications against Armenia with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Mr. Bayatyan’s case became the turning point when on July 7, 2011, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR overwhelmingly ruled in his favor. For the first time in its history, the ECHR ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights protects conscientious objectors. This favorable Grand Chamber ruling was followed by four other ECHR rulings that similarly upheld the rights of conscientious objectors. *

Applicants in recent ECHR judgments upholding the right to conscientious objection: Hayk Bukharatyan and Ashot Tsaturyan.

Disregarding the Grand Chamber judgment in Bayatyan v. Armenia, the Armenian government prosecuted and convicted 29 young Witnesses who were conscientious objectors; of these, 23 were imprisoned. From July 2011 to October 2013, 86 men have collectively spent over 168 years in Armenian prisons. Some of these young men have challenged the illegal imprisonment by submitting additional applications to the ECHR.

Unresolved Concerns

Conscientious objectors who have completed their prison term and those released in October 2013 are hopeful that their criminal records will be expunged, in harmony with Armenia’s recent modifications to its criminal code. Another concern is whether compensation will be paid to those who have been convicted and imprisoned after the Bayatyan judgment.

The full impact of Armenia’s implementation of its amended alternative service law remains to be seen. However, it appears that Armenia has now made a serious effort to recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service.

The Long Road to an Acceptable Civilian Service Program




Armenia becomes a member of the Council of Europe and is required to enact an acceptable alternative service law


Law on Alternative Service is enacted, but the alternative service program is under military control and thus unacceptable to Jehovah’s Witnesses


Amendments to Law on Alternative Service add punitive provisions but do not provide genuine civilian service that is acceptable to Jehovah’s Witnesses


In its 16-1 judgment Bayatyan v. Armenia, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR finds violation of right of freedom of conscience, protecting rights of conscientious objectors


Two European Court judgments against Armenia on issue of conscientious objection: Bukharatyan v. Armenia and Tsaturyan v. Armenia


On June 8, new amendments come into force, and enabling regulations are adopted on July 25, which may provide genuine civilian service

On October 8 and 9, Armenia releases eight imprisoned conscientious objectors

On October 23, the Republican Commission grants the application for alternative civilian service of 57 of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including 6 of the remaining 20 Witnesses still imprisoned in Armenia

On October 24, Armenia releases six Witnesses from the Erebuni Prison

^ See Erçep v. Turkey, no. 43965/04, 22 November 2011; Bukharatyan v. Armenia, no. 37819/03, 10 January 2012; Tsaturyan v. Armenia, no. 37821/03, 10 January 2012; Feti Demirtaş v. Turkey, no. 5260/07, 17 January 2012.