Armenia court clears Jehovah's Witness

YEREVAN, Armenia (September 18, 2001 7:54 p.m. EDT) - A leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia was acquitted Tuesday of charges of forcing young people to evade military service and recruiting members to the religious group.

After a two-month trial, the court cited a lack of evidence in the case of Levon Markarian, a court spokesman said. He had faced up to five years in prison.

Markarian was charged with "infringement on citizens' rights." Prosecutors said he prompted young members of the Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse Armenia's mandatory army service for religious reasons, and lured members to his group even though it has been refused registration by Armenian authorities.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have been seeking registration since the group became active in Armenia with the 1991 collapse of the atheist Soviet regime.

Although Armenia's constitution provides for freedom of religion, it is difficult for new groups to register and the rules favor the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church.

Jehovah's Witnesses say they have been raided repeatedly by police, and about 20 Armenian members have been sentenced to prison terms for refusing military service. Government officials deny discrimination, saying they were only enforcing Armenia's mandatory draft.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hailed Tuesday's verdict, and expressed hope that a new draft law on alternative military service would prevent similar prosecutions.

"The verdict demonstrates a commitment on the part of the judiciary to defend an individual's right to freedom of religion and conscience. Such a commitment is to be applauded," the OSCE's office in Yerevan said in a statement.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have faced difficulties in many former Soviet republics, where traditional churches struggling to rebuild followings have used government ties to restrict activities of nontraditional groups.

The Armenian Apostolic Church has sought to smooth over tensions this year because of celebrations marking Armenia's 1700th anniversary of its conversion to Christianity. Pope John Paul II is to join the celebrations next week during a visit aimed at fostering reconciliation among Christian denominations.