Jehovah's Witnesses: New Problems with Military Service in Latvia
by Nikandrs Gills (University of Latvia, Riga)
The Jehovah's Witnesses propose alternative service instead of military one (from 1990 till 02.1997 alternative service in Latvia existed). A new law about obligatory military service, effective from February 27, 1997 in Latvia, did not provide alternative service. For that reason, young Jehovahs Witnesses who have reached the age of military conscription have already encountered difficulties. Thus, on 25 August 1999, the Court of Vidzemes Municipality heard the complaints lodged by two young Witnesses - Roman Nemiro and Vladimir Gamayunov - against what they called unlawful action of officials, namely, against the decision of the Control Commission of the Military Conscription Office to conscript them for the military service. The Commission was informed about the religious conviction of conscription candidates, and that it was against their conscience to perform any kind of military service. Moreover, they had requested that they be "given an opportunity to perform a non-military service under the guidance of civilians" and to cancel the respective decisions of the Head of the Military Conscription Centre . The Commission ruled that the former decisions remain valid . There is an important point in V. Gamayunovs application to the Control Commission of the Military Conscription Office. He wrote: since "the Military Conscription Centre has not taken into consideration my application in which I explained my religious conviction that prevents me from performing military service, I request to exempt me from the military service as a cleric [my emphasis - N.G.] or to give me an opportunity to perform a service under the guidance of civilians, not connected to military service" . V. Gamuyanov did have a reason to require exemption from the military service as an ordained cleric because in his congregation he provided pastoral care as a deacon. The pastoral care providers of Jehovahs Witnesses congregations have been exempted from military service on a number of occasions, in accordance with the legislation which was in force until 27 February 1997. The current legislation provides that ordained clerics belonging to the confessions represented in the armed forces by chaplains (Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, Baptists) will be exempt form military service. State officials offering some religions an opportunity to perform the chaplain service in the military forces, and denying it to others, in fact determine whose believers conscience and religious conviction is to be respected and whose is not. It is obvious that they violate paragraph 4 of the Law on Religious Organizations  and paragraph 99 of Satversme (the Constitution) of the Republic of Latvia: "Every person has a freedom of thought, conscience and religious conviction".
Aware of this situation, V.Gamayunov wrote to the Control Commission of the Military Conscription Office: "Since the clerics of the Jehovahs Witnesses are not exempt from the military service in spite of the fact that clerics of other religions are, it is necessary to provide an alternative to the military service (i.e. service under the guidance of civilians), lest there will be a situation in Latvia in which exemption of clerics from the service or the penalty is granted depending on their religious conviction" .
Among the materials of legal proceedings of the lawsuit there was also a conclusion written by the State Office of Human Rights on the rights of clerics or other members of the Jehovahs Witnesses congregation to be exempt from military service. It recognizes that freedom of conscience is guaranteed by international regulations and the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, both superior to the Law on compulsory military service. The court, accordingly, would have to follow the normative acts of Latvian legislation, as well as international treaties and general legislative principles. The conclusion emphasizes that a persons right to refuse to perform military service because of his/her worldview is a manifestation of the basic human freedoms - freedom of thought, religion, conscience and belief. In the given case, it is important to show tolerance towards the Jehovahs Witnesses, a fairly unfamiliar religion in Latvia, for it is a crucial aspect in the development of democracy in Latvia. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion: "The State Office of Human Rights holds an opinion that, interpreted historically and systematically in the context of international obligations, paragraph 99 of Satversme (the Constitution) includes the right to refuse to perform military service, if an individuals conscience in reality contradicts the performance of such a service. In current situation, the violation of persons rights might be avoided if an equally difficult alternative service was created or if the members of Jehovahs Witnesses congregations were exempted from compulsory military service altogether" .
For unknown reasons, the Court of Vidzemes Municipality of Riga did not take into consideration the above mentioned requests and experts conclusions, nor the documents prepared by the petitioners advocates or the argumentation based on legislation  and dismissed the case of petitioners .
There is no doubt that within 20 days an appeal against the decision will be lodged with the regional court.
1. Decision of the Head of the Military Conscription Centre No.1/1 (record No. 01-14) on 14 January 1999, about R.Nemiro conscription for the active military service, and the decision of the Head of the Military Conscription Centre No.1/10 (record No. 02-16) on 14 January 1999 about V. Gamayunovs conscription for the active military service.
2. Record of the meeting of the Military Conscription Control Commission No. 9/1, of 29 January 1999, and record No. 10/2, of 5 March 1999.
3. V.Gamayunovs application to the Military Conscription Commission on 17 February 1999.
4. "Direct of indirect limitation of the peoples rights, or giving advantages to some people depending on their attitude towards religion is prohibited".
5. V.Gamayunovs application to the Military Conscription Commission on 17 February 1999.
6. The State Office of Human Rights. "Conclusion about the rights of the clerics or other members of the Jehovahs Witnesses congregation to be exempt from military service". 16 June 1999.
7. It was demonstrated that since 14 July 1992 the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights is binding on Latvia. According to paragraph 18 of this convention the member states take on the obligation to guarantee the freedom of conscience and religion in the territory of the state. The United Nations Human Rights Committee in its comment on this pact [General Comment No. 22(48)] accepts that paragraph 18 of the convention provides for the freedom to refuse military service for reasons of conscience. See also: the European Convention on Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms; the Recommendation of the Council of Europe of 1977, No. 816 "On the Rights to Refuse Military Service For the Reasons of Conscience"; the Recommendation of the Council of Europe of 9 April 1987, No. (87)8 "Objections Against Military Service For the Reason of Conscience" and other documents. As the petitioners advocate Mr. Edgars Endzelis stressed, it could be concluded that the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia and the international treaties binding on Latvia grant the right to refuse to perform military service for the reasons of conscience. It was also showed that the Law On the Compulsory Military Service provides neither for the obligation nor for possibilities to perform an alternative service; the records of the Saeima (Parliament) sessions, however provide evidence that it has been proposed to observe the freedom of conscience by setting up a Commission of Conscription for Military Service, which could decide on conscription or non-conscription in cases when performance of military service would contradict a persons conscience. For more information see: Latvijas Vçstnesis No.187 (672), 1996, "Saeimas sç_u stenogrammas" P. 477.
8. An extract from the Court decision No ..
See other texts from Nikandrs Gills:
Jehovahs Witnesses: New Problems with Military Service in Latvia - An Update (Sept. 24, 1999) with the texts of court decisions on the cases of Roman Nemiro No. 2-2927/5, 1999 and Vladimir Gamayunov, No. 2-3167/5, 1999
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