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Finland sees rise in 'total objectors' to military, civilian service

Young men refusing both compulsory military and civilian service were able to avoid punishment this spring by taking advantage of a legal loophole.

Alokkaan punkka ja sotilasmerkkejä takin hihassa.
Image: Marjut Suomi / Yle

In February Finnish lawmakers ended the military exemption for Jehovah's Witnesses, but the rule didn’t come into force until April, creating a window of opportunity for total objectors of any conviction to avoid a six-month prison sentence.

“Fifty-two total objectors registered in the first three months of the year, when the annual total has been around 30 or 40," said Mikko Reijonen of the civilian service centre.

Since the beginning of April, male members of the Jehovah’s Witness religious group can no longer skip military or alternative civilian service without punishment. Some 200 young male Jehovah’s Witnesses will from now on receive call-ups every year. If they decide to object to either form of service, they will face prosecution by the state.

In 2018, the Helsinki Court of Appeal ruled that the Finnish practice of allowing male Jehovah's Witnesses to avoid conscription was discriminatory. The ruling related to a discrimination case brought by a man who was imprisoned in 2016 for refusing conscripted service. The exemption dating from 1987 has long been considered problematic from a constitutional standpoint. Members of the Christian faction were previously able to postpone their entry into service for three years at a time (starting at age 18), until their obligation officially ceased at age 29. They cited their pacifist reading of the Bible as the basis of their objection, for which they received no punishment.

Kaj Raninen from the Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors (Finnish acronym AKL) told Yle that removing the exemption for the Christian faction contradicted Finland’s human rights responsibilities.

The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly condemned Finland’s policy in this area and Amnesty International considers Finland's jailed conscientious objectors prisoners of conscience.

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