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Total objectors - Finland’s prisoners of conscience

Each year in Finland, there are a small number of so-called ‘total objectors’ who refuse both compulsory military service and the option of civilian service. At present Finnish law requires that they serve a prison sentence of six months. The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly condemned the Nordic country's policy in this area and Amnesty International considers Finland's jailed conscientious objectors prisoners of conscience.

Varusmiehiä seisomassa.
Image: Laura Tolonen / Yle

An overwhelming majority, some 75 to 80 percent, of Finnish men complete compulsory military service, and each year some 1,700 more young men are enrolled in the country’s defence forces.

Finland has enforced military conscription since 1881. An option for non-combatant military service was introduced in 1922. Today, a person subject to conscription may apply for civilian service at any time before or during his military service, and the application is accepted as a matter of course. The civilian service term is 12 months.

In recent years, about seven percent of the male 17 and 18 year olds who are called up for annual enrolment chose the civilian service option. In case Finland enters a crisis, however, even those who served in civilian service are obliged to contribute to the Finnish cause.

The number of total objectors, men who refuse to serve in the military or complete civilian service as a conscript, has varied over the years from just a few to a few dozen. The introduction of monitored sentencing as punishment, i.e., using an ankle transmitter to monitor the offender, has contributed to a slight rise in their numbers.

Young men who refuse to serve in the military or civilian service must serve a six month prison sentence in Finland in monitored conditions, open prison or regular prison. In 2015, for example, 17 men began a monitored sentence.

Jehovah's Witnesses exempt, others not

Members of the religious group Jehovah’s Witnesses are exempt from military service in Finland, but this same exemption does not apply to people with similar convictions that are not a part of an organised religion. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly called for Finland to observe the validity of other convictions, and for this reason, Amnesty International considers Finland’s total objectors to be prisoners of conscience.

Yle interviewed four total objectors recently about their choice to refuse military service. One of those interviewed was Otto Absetz, a 23 year old young man from the southern city of Hausjärvi. He never felt compelled to follow a law that he felt was unjust and meaningless. 

“The fact that the civilian service took so long and was also just another form of mandatory labour convinced me to become a total objector,” he says.

Absetz says his close network has supported him in his decision and his family has always been of the opinion that he has to do what feels right to him.

“My older relatives have even made light of it and encouraged me. What people say on online forums is much worse than what they would say to your face. People on the Internet want to send total objectors to Siberia.”

“I’ve been asked if I consider myself a criminal. According to Finnish law I perhaps am, but I don’t think of myself as one. Amnesty says total objectors in Finland are prisoners of conscience. That’s how I think of my choice.”

Monitored sentence

Absetz carried out half of his prison sentence as a monitored prisoner with a radio signal ankle transmitter. After breaking the monitoring regime’s rigid schedule too many times, however, he says he will likely have to finish his sentence in a prison cell.

“The crime that I'm guilty of doesn’t make me a threat to society -- or to anyone, for that matter. The punishment seems more political to me,” he says.

He would like to see Finland give equal consideration to all belief systems in its future conscription policy.

“It would be easy to say that I would never use violence under any circumstances, but in reality, if my family was threatened and self-defence was my only option, I'd do what I had to.”

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