Finnish Conscientious Objectors
What comes to your mind when you think about Finland? Nokia-mobile phones, snow, Santa Claus and sauna, maybe. Not so many people are aware that every year more than 60 young men are sentenced to 6 1/2 months of imprisonment because of their refusal to take part in the system of compulsory military service. This makes Finland the only EU-country in which Amnesty International says there are prisoners of conscience.
The conscription system in Finland
There is still a very extensive conscription system in Finland. All the 17-18 year old male citizens are called up to an annual enrollment, where about 80% of the young men sign in for the military service. About 10% are excused from the service on medical grounds, and about 7% choose for the alternative service.
The military service, and the alternative service which normally takes place at public services such as hospitals, schools, elderly homes, libraries, or certain non-profit NGOs, are supposed to be equal alternatives. However, the most common military service lasts 180 days, while the alternative service takes 395 days. The annual enrollment events, which are organised by military officials, are legally obliged to provide information about the alternative service, but most of the events fail to do this.
In addition to the punitive length of the alternative service, the men who choose it also face many other problems. The authorities are supposed to arrange service places for the alternative service, but in the reality its often up to the servants to find a place. In the worst case (because the number of people applying to do the alternative service is higher than the amount of service places available), they have to stay for some or all of their 13 months service in the training centre for alternative servants.
The places hosting an alternative servant are obliged to provide the servants with a daily allowance, accommodation and lodging, healthcare and travel costs, but many places try to neglect their duties, especially by not arranging proper housing.
Although there is a choice between the military and alternative service during peacetime, there is no law on the status of conscientious objectors during a war. It would be up to the "Defence Staff", the headquarters of the Finnish army, to decide about how the COs would be treated. This could mean that a person who hasnt taken part in any kind of military training would be obliged to bear arms. This is what happened during the Second World War in Finland. Arndt Pekurinen was a council member of the Finnish Anti-Militarist League and had spent years in prison for his refusal to co-operate with the military. He was executed by military officers after he had been brought handcuffed to the frontline where he refused to dress in a military uniform and take a rifle.
About 60 young men refuse both the military and the alternative service in Finland every year. Some of the total objectors do this to protest against the compulsory conscription system and wouldnt agree to take part in it under any circumstances. Others refuse the service to protest against the punitive length and other problems of the alternative service. The conscientious objectors are sentenced to prison for half of their remaining service time, the maximum being 197 days.
Not every conscientious objector ends up in jail though. In 1987 Finland passed a law that excuses members of the Jehovas Witnesses society from the conscription system during peace time on the basis of their religious convictions. Unfortunately the government failed to recognise non-religious pacifist convictions as a reasonable excuse for objecting to military service, and keeps on imprisoning other COs than Jehovas Witnesses.
Other groups of people who are not called up for the enrollment are the inhabitants of Aland islands (an autonomous, demilitarised area of Finland), and all the female citizens of Finland.
Amnesty International started adopting the Finnish total objectors as prisoners of conscience in 1999, because it sees the length of the alternative service as a punishment. This makes Finland, which has otherwise enjoyed a high profile in the field of human rights and equality, the only EU-member state with prisoners of conscience.
In Finland the president has the power to give amnesty to prisoners, and there are ongoing campaigns to urge her to pardon imprisoned COs, which she has unfortunately never done so far. Still, we hope that international pressure will inspire her and the Finnish government to change the Finnish laws so that COs will no longer be imprisoned for their ideas.
Jussi Hermaja, a Finnish conscientious objector sentenced to 197 days of imprisonment fled Finland in October 2001. He came to Belgium to ask for political asylum. Belgium is the only EU-country that doesnt automatically classify the other EU-countries as safe states, and therefore its still possible for a person from another EU-country to seek asylum there.
The Belgian Committee for Refugees (the government body responsible for dealing with asylum applications) decided not to even start investigating Jussis case, and rejected his asylum request straight away. It is quite clear that EU-membership and the good human rights reputation of Finland had an effect on the decision. Still, the fact that the Finnish alternative service system is discriminative and punitive remains, and Jussis lawyer has appealed against the rejection to the High Court of Belgium.
After the Finnish High Court refused to handle Jussis appeal against his prison sentence, he submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. He is still waiting for a reply.
It might still take years before Jussis appeal will be dealt with in the High Court of Belgium. Meanwhile he works at For Mother Earth in Gent for the freedom of his fellow conscientious objectors in Finland.
What can you do?
A cake with a file might not get through the security control of the Finnish prisons, so here are some other things you can do to help the Finnish COs:
-join our actions
We organise actions at the Finnish Embassy in Brussels every now and then. If youd like to be informed about the future actions, please send an e-mail to <email@example.com>.
-organise an action at the Finnish Embassy of your country
You can find a list of Finnish Embassies at http://formin.finland.fi/english/. Please keep us and the Finnish Union of COs updated about your actions!
-write a letter to the Finnish President
In Finland the president has the power to give amnesty to sentenced prisoners. Send her a letter urging her to free all imprisoned COs, and to change the Finnish law so that COs will not be imprisoned any longer in the future.
President Tarja Halonen
Mariankatu 2, 00170 Helsinki, Finland
Please send your letter also to the Finnish Embassy in your country (see the website above for an address of your local Embassy)
-make a donation
We need money to be able to run the campaign to support the Finnish COs. Please make your donation on our bank account (Voor Moeder Aarde vzw, Fortis account no. 001-2055174-14, mention the Finnish COs in the message).
-send mail to the imprisoned COs
Spending 197 days in prison can be quite boring, so letters from the outside world and messages of support are much appreciated. As of May 2003 there were 30 COs in Finnish prisons, 8 of whom have given their addresses for circulation. Here you find is a list of the prisoners, and their in-out dates between the brackets. Please check our website www.hermaja.org for an updated list of imprisoned COs.
Timo Turunen(15.11.02-11.6.03), Toni Mäki (21.11.2002-7.6.2003), Otto Miettinen (25.11.2002-11.6.2003), Markus Mattsson (10.1.2002-27.7.2003)
Kristian Korsberg (7.4.2003-28.9.2003)
Address: Keravan vankila, PL 133, 04201 Kerava, Finland
More information on the situation of conscientious objectors in Finland:
www.motherearth.org (For Mother Earth)
www.hermaja.org (Case Hermaja)
www.aseistakieltaytyjaliitto.fi (Finnish Union of COs)
There are currently around 30 Conscientious Objectors in prison in Finland for refusing military service. They have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience- the only prisoners of conscience in the European Union.
We would like to ask if you could publish the attached article in your newsletter or magazine, or otherwise spread the information via your email lists or on your website.
Photographs to illustrate the story can be found via the website http://www.hermaja.org
Print quality images are available on request.
You can find more background information on the website http://www.hermaja.org
Many thanks, David Heller For Mother Earth / Case Hermaja http://www.motherearth.org