On 23 February the Helsinki appeal court decided to repeal a sentence given to a total objector by a district court. The objector said that his pacifist convictions were a reason for his conscientious objection. He had been sentenced for "refusal from civilian service". The appeal court decided that sentencing him would be discriminatory compared to Jehovah's Witnesses preferential treatment. Jehovah's Witnesses are exempt from military and civilian service in peace time.
The decision is ground-breaking. Finnish total objectors have presented similar arguments about discrimination to different courts in dozens and dozens trials, but this was the first time when any court took them seriously and submitted the arguments for profound legal analysis. The decision was made after a vote. Four members voted for against sentencing, three for it. However, the judges were unanimous that the current situation is discriminatory, their disagreement was about is it court's task to correct it. The prosecutor is probably going to complain to the Supreme Court, so the decision is not yet final.
"There was nothing special in this case. The Finnish courts could have studied the same arguments properly already 20 years ago. But they didn´t and hundreds of young people have been routinely sentenced to prison or home detention. Still, better late than never", said Kaj Raninen from Finnish Union of CO's (AKL).
The appeal court's decision should mean that the sentencing of total objectors stops in Finland, at least temporarily. The decision is a directional precedent for lower courts. And if a district court still sentences someone for "refusal from civilian service", the appeal will be decided by Helsinki's appeal court. The appeal court had postponed other total objector's appeals until it had made its decision about this one. Now it will probably decide either to repeal the other sentences also or to wait until the Supreme Court has given its decision. If the Supreme Court affirms the appeal courts decision, the new situation will be permanent and total objectors won't be sentenced to prison unless the legislation is changed.
After the court decision's, representatives of the Finnish government talked vaguely about a need to change legislation but haven't yet suggested any concrete proposals. Considering that Finland is governed by a very conservative cabinet, the most likely proposal will be just to cancel the law which exempts Jehovah's Witnesses from
conscription. This would, of course, make the problem worse instead of solving it. The appeal court's decision was based on the Finnish constitution which prohibits discrimination. However, the the UN's Human Rights Committee has also urged Finland to correct the situation many times. Their statement is not based on discrimination but on
the freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). And they want Finland to "extend the preferential treatment accorded to Jehovah’s Witnesses to other groups of conscientious objectors", instead of ending it. Also the Human Rights Council of UN has recommended Finland to free imprisoned total objectors.
So far, the community of Jehovah's Witnesses have said that the Finnish civilian service is not an acceptable option for them, as it is on a principal level connected to a constitutional duty "to defend the country". So cancelling the law might mean much more total objectors. This decade, the number has been between 35-55 total objectors annually.
AKL demands that Finland stops prison and home detention sentences permanently and free all imprisoned total objectors. "The ruling of the Helsinki appeal court should mean the beginning of the end to the Finnish conscription system, which has needed a discriminatory civilian service and prison sentences to intimidate the majority of
young men to do military service", AKL says.
Court cases in early February
East Uusimaa district court (Itä-Uudenmaan käräjäoikeus) sentenced three total objectors on 6 Feb. Valtteri Repo got an unconditional prison sentence of 115 days. Jussi Salmela and Elsa Tauria were sentenced to home detention. Salmela got 172 days and Tauria 173 days.
Jussi Salmela and Elsa Tauria are going to appeal to Helsinki appeal court which will - after their new decision - likely either to repeal the sentence or postpone it after the Supreme court´s ruling. However, Valtteri Repo decided not to appeal, and he will probably be imprisoned in near future.