The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one's belief or religion
The right to join together and express one's belief


Friday 20 May 2005

Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan faces either being jailed or sent to do
forced labour for two years for refusing, on religious grounds, to swear
the military oath, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Mirzoyan has been
beaten up several times in two different military units in
Nagorno-Karabakh since being called up last December, when he refused to
serve with weapons. He has also been detained for more than 10 days for
sharing his faith with other soldiers and possessing several Christian
calendars. Mirzoyan's trial has now been set for June and fellow Baptists
have told Forum 18 that the "harsh reality" of the maltreatment
Baptist conscripts suffered in the Soviet era is returning. Gagik
Mirzoyan's congregation has earlier faced harassment from the Karabakh
authorities and other Protestants and religious minorities, especially
Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activity.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan, who has been beaten several times in two
different military units in Nagorno-Karabakh and detained for more than 10
days since being called up last December, now faces up to two years in
prison or in a forced labour battalion. His trial for refusing to swear
the military oath on religious grounds is set for June, Mirzoyan's fellow
Baptists told Forum 18 News Service on 18 May from the unrecognised
republic in the South Caucasus. The Baptists recalled the maltreatment
Baptist conscripts suffered during the Soviet era. "Now the harsh
reality is returning," they told Forum 18.

Ashot Yegonyan, senior investigator at the public prosecutor's office of
the Hadrut region of south-eastern Nagorno-Karabakh, told Mirzoyan's
mother on 18 May that charges have been laid against her son under Article
364 part 1 of the Nagorno-Karabakh criminal code. This punishes
"refusal to perform one's military duties" with detention of up
to 3 months, disciplinary battalion of up to 2 years or imprisonment of up
to 2 years. Nagorno-Karabakh has adopted the Armenian criminal code.

In the wake of his conscription in December 2004, Mirzoyan refused to
serve with weapons and swear the military oath because of his faith. He
was beaten and pressured by the commander of the unit to which he was
transferred and Fr Petros Yezegyan, the unit's Armenian Apostolic military
chaplain. The army then agreed he could serve in a non-combat role without
weapons and without swearing the oath, and he was transferred to a unit in
Hadrut region.

However, he was again beaten and punished with more than ten days in
detention in early April for sharing his faith with other soldiers and
possessing several Christian calendars (see F18News 15 April 2005

"I don't have information about any trial," Nagorno-Karabakh's
deputy foreign minister Masis Mailyan told Forum 18 from the capital
Stepanakert. "I know about Mirzoyan though, as Baptists from the
United States and elsewhere keep writing to us about his case. But they
often have inaccurate information." He denied that Mirzoyan had been
beaten since being conscripted, especially by an Armenian Apostolic
chaplain. "I don't believe a chaplain could beat a conscript,"
Mailyan insisted. "It would go against Christian beliefs."

An official at the Defence Ministry told Forum 18 from Stepanakert on 20
May that the minister, General Seyran Ohanyan, was out of the office and
that no-one else was immediately available. In February, Ohanyan had
denied to Forum 18 that Mirzoyan had been beaten and defended the system
of two-year compulsory military service for all young men in Karabakh. But
he seemed open to the idea of changing the law to allow those unable to
serve in the armed forces on religious grounds to be allowed some
alternative to military service (see F18News 22 February 2005

At present Nagorno-Karabakh has no provision for alternative service for
those who have religious or other conscientious objections to
participating in the armed forces. On 16 February a court in Stepanakert
handed down a four-year prison term to Areg Hovhanesyan, a Jehovah's
Witness from Stepanakert who had refused to serve because of his faith but
had expressed a willingness to perform an alternative civilian service (see
F18News 22 February 2005

While both Mirzoyan and Hovhanesyan are local residents of Karabakh, the
Armenian authorities have illegally deported conscientious objectors who
are Armenian citizens to Karabakh against their will. Armenian authorities
routinely beat up and jail Baptist and Jehovah's Witness conscientious
objectors. Armenia has also repeatedly broken its promises to the Council
of Europe to free its jailed conscientious objectors and to introduce a
genuinely civilian alternative to military conscription. One Jehovah's
Witness deported from the Armenian capital Yerevan, Armen Grigoryan, goes
on trial in Stepanakert on 27 May and faces up to six years imprisonment
after refusing military service (see F18News 17 May 2005

Mailyan of the Foreign Ministry said he was not familiar with Armen
Grigoryan's case, but found it hard to believe that an Armenian citizen
would be transferred by the Armenian military to Karabakh without the
individual's permission. "We have Armenian soldiers serving here but
as far as I know they are all volunteers serving under contract," he
insisted to Forum 18. "If it is the case that he was brought to
Karabakh against his will that would be strange. I will have to look into

Mailyan said he supported introducing a civilian alternative to military
service. "We are bringing our laws into line with European
standards," he claimed. "Such standards include offering a
civilian alternative service." But he warned that in the situation of
the unresolved war with the Azerbaijani government, which is seeking to
regain control over the enclave, "it will be difficult to find a
balance between protecting our national security and protecting human
rights". He feared many young men who did not want to serve in the
army would pretend to be doing so on religious grounds.

Gagik Mirzoyan's congregation - which belongs to the Council of Churches
Baptists, who refuse on principle to register with the state authorities
in post-Soviet countries - earlier faced harassment from the
Karabakh authorities. The local police raided the Stepanakert church last
September, confiscating religious literature and questioning church
members (see F18News 27 September 2004 Other Protestants and
religious minorities - especially the Jehovah's Witnesses -
have faced restrictions on their activity in Karabakh, though this has
eased in recent years.

A printer-friendly map of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is
available at
within the map titled 'Azerbaijan'.

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