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No prison sentences for civilian service objectors, appeal court rules

Individuals who reject civilian service based on their beliefs should be treated the same as Jehovah's Witnesses and should not face jail time, court says.

20181129 Merivoimien sotilas vannoo sotilasvalan Upinniemessä.
Image: Johanna Vuonokari / Lehtikuva

The Helsinki Appeal Court on Friday upheld a previous ruling by three lower courts that persons who object to civilian service should not be punished with prison sentences.

Currently, individuals can cite their convictions as a reason to refuse civilian and military service, without fear of sanction. However in some cases, prosecutors have sought prison terms for objectors.

On Friday, the Helsinki Appeal court rejected three applications for further hearings lodged by district prosecutor Maren Salvesén, in which the prosecutor sought custodial prison sentences or supervised probation involving electronic tagging for people who have refused civilian service.

Earlier this autumn, the prosecutor had asked the Itä-Uusimaa district court to sentence several persons for refusing civilian service. However the court cited a previous ruling by the Helsinki Appeal Court in February, which found that it could not treat the beliefs of the accused differently from those of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that to do so would constitute discrimination.

JW exemption under scrutiny

In Finland, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to cite their religious beliefs as a rationale for refusing military and civilian service since 1985. However the community's special status has recently come under scrutiny.

The appellate court’s February ruling is not binding on the lower courts, nor did it become enforceable when it was handed down. However the Itä-Uusimaa district court found that it could not overlook the higher court’s views on the issue.

In November, the Supreme Court did not hear any cases relating to the issue, so the appeal court’s ruling remained in force.

If in future the Supreme Court denies prosecutors leave to challenge the Appeal Court decision, the ruling to dismiss prison sentences for civilian service objectors would become enforceable and would remain a part of Finnish case law – unless Parliament amends existing legislation.

MPs are currently considering draft legislation that would remove the exemption that Jehovah’s Witnesses currently enjoy.

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