In May and June 2011, four Jehovah’s Witnesses – Artur Adyan, Garegin Avetisyan, Harutyun Khachatryan and Vahagn Margaryan – were called up for military service in Armenia’s Armed Forces. They failed to appear, and instead addressed letters to the local military commissariat and the regional prosecutor’s office, refusing to perform either military or alternative service, stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and claiming that, having studied the Alternative Service Act, they had come to the conclusion that, by European standards, the service proposed was not of a genuinely civilian nature since it was supervised by the military authorities. Their conscience did not allow them to work directly or indirectly for the military system. The alternative labour service was known to be organised and supervised by the military authorities because the alternative labour serviceman’s record booklet was marked “Armed Forces of Armenia”, and alternative servicemen were subject to military discipline and penalties and had to register with the military subdivisions of the Armed Forces of Armenia. Consequently, the four young men were sentenced by Armenian courts to 2,5 years in prison for evasion of military and alternative service.
In 2011, the young men filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that their conviction had been based on stereotyped reasoning by the courts and that the Armenian authorities had violated their right to freedom of thought, religion, and conscience.
In a verdict issued on October 12, the European Court declared that it believed Armenian institutions of alternative labour service are, in fact, dependent on the military leadership, are subordinate to it and are not therefore hierarchically and institutionally sufficiently separated from the military system at the material time.
The Court further held that there had in fact been a violation of the Article 9 of the EUropean Convention, which read as follows:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The Court ruled that Armenia is to pay the applicants, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final, EUR 12,000, plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage.
Note, all four men were released from prison under an amnesty in 2013, two years after their convictions. In the same year, the law On Alternative Service was amended.