Finnish conscientious objector appears before the Raad van State, Belgium
14th January 2004, Brussels- The Raad van State has heard the appeal of Jussi Hermaja against the refusal of the Belgian state to grant him political asylum.
In October 2001, conscientious objector Jussi Hermaja fled Finland after being sentenced to 197 days in prison for refusing to take part in national service. Jussi's asylum application was refused by the Commissioner General for Refugees (Commissariaat Generaal voor de Vluchtelingen). More than 2 years later, the appeal against this rejection is being dealt with. In the mean time, Jussi has been working with For Mother Earth in Ghent on a campaign to support his fellow conscientious objectors. For Mother Earth and Forum voor Vredesactie support Jussi Hermaja in his asylum application, and his struggle against the Finnish conscription system.
The two NGOs organised a demonstration at the entrance of the Raad van State and spread information about the abuse of human rights in Finland. The court room was completely filled with people showing support for Jussi, and his case. In a departure from normal procedure, the judge allowed both Jussi and his lawyer to give oral statements to the court. The judgement is expected within a few weeks.
Jussi Hermaja refused to take part in the military service, due to his pacifist beliefs. He also refused to take part in the alternative civilian service due to the serious problems that exist within the Finnish civilian service system. The excessive length of the civilian service (13 months) is clearly a punishment when compared with the typical length of military service (6 months). There is insufficient information available on the civilian service during enrollment, and many civilian servants are not given the economic benefits to which they are entitled.
The civilian service is also administered in an unequal manner, which punishes certain categories of conscientious objector.
While there is a choice between military and civilian service in peace time, there is no statute to ensure the right to conscientious objection in war time. This means that someone who has never been given military training may be forced to bear arms.
Every year around 70 young Finnish men refuse to take part in both the military and civilian service. These "total objectors" are sentenced to time in prison equivalent to half of their remaining service period, a maximum of 197 days.
Since 1999, Amnesty International has adopted 45 Finnish conscientious objectors as prisoners of conscience. According to Amnesty International, Finland is the only country in the European Union with prisoners of conscience.
The decision of the Commissioner General for Refugees (Commissariaat-Generaal voor de vluchtelingen) that is being appealed against stated that the Finnish law regarding civilian service is neither discriminatory nor punitive, and that the length of civilian service is not unreasonable long when compared to the length of the military service.
We oppose these arguments. Someone should have the right to be recognised as a refugee if he is discriminated against due to his reasons for refusing to take part in national service. When the civilian service lasts much longer than the military service, it is no longer simply an alternative, but a punishment on the basis of political beliefs, namely the conscientious objection to military service. Furthermore, the Finnish government discriminates between different categories of conscientious objector, based on their reasons for objecting. For example, Jehovas witnesses are exempt from military and civilian service, while other groups refusing to take part in the military service have to perform the civilian service. This amounts to a punishment for those who object to military service on political grounds.
The alternative service has a punitive character, is disproportionate and results in a discriminative treatment based on political belief. For this reason, For Mother Earth and Forum voor Vredesactie believe that Jussi Hermaja has a right to political asylum in Belgium.
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