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More conscientious objectors -- due to social debate or more lenient penalties?

The number of refusals to perform military or civilian service reported to the police last year is nearly double that of previous years. According to Criminal Sanctions Agency statistics, the amount of conscientious objectors appears to be trending upwards.

Valvontarangaistusta kärsivää valvotaan sähköisellä jalkapannalla.
Elmo Kalvas is one of a minority of conscientious objectors who is allowed to serve his sentence with an electronic tagging device. Image: Isto Janhunen / Yle

For several years there was a downward trend in the amount of young men refusing to perform either military or civil service, but records from recent years suggest that numbers are once more on the rise.

The usual sentence served by conscientious objectors is between seven and eight months in prison. Judges can now replace this penalty with a more lenient punishment in the form of an enforced period of electronic tagging.

All Finnish men aged 18 and over are required to serve either military or civilian service, with exceptions made for disabilities and religious convictions. The usual minimum military service is about six months, with longer requirements of those who opt for civilian service. Women may serve in the Finnish Defence Forces on a volunteer basis.

Still no picnic

Last spring, conscientious objector Elmo Kalvas was given an electronic tagging device to strap to his leg. He's been subjected to random drug and alcohol tests and has to stick to a strict timetable.

"It was kind of a tough experience,” he says. “When something was locked into the schedule, I had to follow it. That was that.”

Kalvas currently finds himself in the Laukaa Open Prison because he was running behind the agreed schedule.

"The system is really cold, as the machine does the time-keeping on your behalf. The reasons aren’t taken into account in any way,” he says.

Table: Tagged or locked up?

 In prisonTagged
200056 
200145 
200272 
200355 
200455 
200560 
200653 
200739 
200838 
200922 
201024 
201120 
201266
2013 (until 1.12.)1228

Source: Criminal Sanctions Agency

Information on the number of conscientious objectors varies, but according to police information the amount of cases reported is more than in previous years.

The Civilian Service Centre (CSC) estimates that this year the number of total objectors is likely to rise to about 40.

"Certainly the biggest increase is due to the fact that in November 2011 this form of control punishment came into force. Under half of these sorts of judgments involved the imposition of the tag, and this affected quite a lot of civilian and military service objectors,” says Mikko Reijonen of the CSC.

Table: Number of conscientious objectors by year

200831
200927
201024
201121
201241

Source: Police

Kaj Raninen, secretary of the Union of Conscientious Objectors, believes that the reasons are also linked to the current climate of social debate.

"At last Finland has joined the wider debate on the future of the military conscription system and its justification,” Raninen says. “It follows that more often young men want to protest that system, also in the form of conscientious objection.”

Conscientious objectors are still relatively few and far between comparative to those who decide to fulfil the requirement of either civilian or military service.

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