by Nikandrs Gills
In accordance with the new legislation, Vladimir Gamayunov, a Jehovahs Witness, has been exempted from conscription into compulsory military service on 19 January 2000. However, the Amendment has not yet resolved the controversy over the status of another Jehovahs Witness, Roman Nemiro, in relation to compulsory military service.
On 20 December 1999, Saeima, the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia, adopted the final draft of The Amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service. It was announced by the President of Latvia, Ms Vaira Vike-Freiberga, on 5 January 2000.
The amendment to paragraph 21 might interest us most of all because it makes a provision that in some cases conscription to compulsory military service in standing army may be postponed, or a person may be exempted from such a service. Point 7 of paragraph 21 provides that this rule must apply also to "ordained clerics who belong to a religious organization registered by the Ministry of Justice, and to the persons who are being trained in educational institutions of these organizations to become members of their clerical staff."
In accordance with this paragraph of the Law, two Jehovahs Witnesses, the above mentioned Vladimir Gamayunov and another young man, were released from compulsory military service on 19 January 2000.
Before the Amendment was adopted by the Parliament, its draft was prepared by parliamentary commissions, particularly by the Commission of Defence and the Interior as well as the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs. The Minister of Defence, Mr. G. V. Kristovskis, in his letter to the Jehovahs Witnesses Riga Centre congregation on 6 May 1999, admitted "that taking into consideration the current situation, exemption of Jehovahs Witnesses from conscription into compulsory military service (currently not provided by legislation) would not remarkably reduce the number of conscripts into the armed forces of Latvia, thus alternative legislative provisions are feasible. Our opinion is that this matter lay within the competence of the Parliament; as citizens, you have a right to address those persons whom the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia has granted a right to submit to the Parliament draft proposals for a new law."
On 7 July a draft law prepared by the Ministry of Defence and approved by the Council of Ministers was sent to the Parliament, together with an annotation in which the above quoted part of paragraph 21 was explained in a pragmatic way, in this respect reminding the motivation in the above mentioned letter: "Since religious organizations (for instance, the Jehovahs Witnesses' Riga congregation) are being registered by the Ministry of Justice, it has become necessary to exempt from compulsory military service ordained clerics belonging to these organizations, provided their status can be ascertained according to the law."
The Parliament received other, less pragmatically intended proposals as well; most of them were motivated by the individuals conscience and conviction preventing them from performing service in standing army or another military organization.
Exercising the right to submit proposals to parliamentary commissions, the chairman of the board of Jehovahs Witnesses Riga Centre congregation, Mr. M. Krumins, sent a letter to the chairman of the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs, Mr. A. Seiksts, on 3 November 1999. In his letter, Mr. Krumins pointed out that already on 21 September the same year he had requested the following: "to submit proposals about an amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service, which would make provisions that in case a person has conscientious objections to military service he or she can perform an alternative service; to establish that alternative service be carried out under the guidance of civilians; to establish that a reservist called up for military training be directed to perform alternative service in case the person has conscientious objections to military training." It is also mentioned in Mr. Krumins letter that the above mentioned motions have been ignored when the Parliament passed the second draft of the amendment; the persons refusing to perform military service on the grounds of conscientious objections can still be prosecuted for avoiding compulsory military service. The letter requested to supplement the draft amendment with respective norms, to avoid restricting the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Constitution of Latvia. Several versions how to supplement point 1 of paragraph 21 were advocated. Version A suggested that "persons whose conscience or conviction prevent them from performing military service" be exempted from compulsory military service. Version B in addition to that included the following: "These conditions are established by the Military conscription commission." Still another version in addition to A and B would include the text: "Such persons can be assigned alternative (work) service." It was suggested that paragraph 33 (on reservists) be supplemented with the following: "Reservists are exempt from training in National armed forces once the Military conscription commission have ascertained the fact that a person has serious conscientious objections or a conviction that prevent that person from joining military training."
These proposals were partly taken into consideration by the parliamentary Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs. The chairman of the Commission, Mr. A. Seiksts, prepared the proposals for a draft amendment (documents no. 829; no. 1197; registration no. 282) and passed them on to the Commission of Defence and the Interior on 10 November 1999.
It was proposed to include in paragraph 21 of the Law the following point: [Postponement or cancellation of conscription into compulsory military service apply to..] "the persons whose conscience or religious conviction prevent them from performing military service. This is to be ascertained by the Military conscription commission, in accordance with the procedure established by the Council of Ministers."
Shorthand records of the parliamentary session on 20 December 1999  bear evidence to the discussion of the final (third) draft of the Amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service. Members of Parliament unanimously voted for almost all proposals submitted by the Minister of Defence, G. V. Kristovskis, and the Commission of Defence and the Interior, including the proposal advocating the exemption of ordained clerics from compulsory military service.
Debates were held only about the above mentioned proposal received from the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs. The Commission of Defence and the Interior in its meeting had already dismissed it. The first to take floor in the debates was the chairman of the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs, Mr. A. Seiksts. He commented on the proposal prepared by his Commission: "The point is that in case a persons religious conviction prevents him from performing military service, he would be allowed to refuse it. State authorities could assign him another task. Why has such a proposal been made? First of all, in the Constitution, item 8 of paragraph 99, adopted by the 6th Saeima, provides that every Latvian citizen, every resident of Latvia must have such a right. Secondly, we had an extended debate with the leadership of conscription commission; they confirmed that such cases were rare in our country; about two dozen people. There are a couple of religious organizations whose doctrine really forbids a person to handle a weapon or to take part in military actions or military training. We can, of course, pretend that there are no such people. However, the leadership of conscription commissions confirm that they have no reason to doubt the honesty of the motivation of these people; and they would like to release these people from military service and allow them to carry out their duty to their country in another way. However, since the law makes no such provision, the only option is to prosecute these people. They themselves say: we would rather allow these people to avoid serving in standing army, substitute it with another kind of service. However, the law makes no such provision. [..] What happens when the government totally ignores this problem? These people have only two options, either to take punishment or to defend their own conviction, to take their case to all levels of courts in the Republic of Latvia, so that they could make an appeal to the International Court of Justice. Are these two dozens of cases worth the risk that our state could lose a case in Strasbourg? Thats the first consideration. The second is whether the state would lose anything by paying respect? [..] Lets speak as frankly as possible. A religious organization is registered in the country: the organization of Jehovahs Witnesses. A lot of people feel dubious about it, for a number of people it is unacceptable; still, it does exist. It exists; and the majority of nations in the world (I mean the democratic nations) do respect such a right. For the time being, we are not going to deal with the question of alternative service, but believe me, dear colleagues! - sooner or later we will have to deal with it. Maybe it will happen once the economical situation has improved; maybe the unemployment rate will drop, or some other changes will take place. However, my opinion is that both with respect to human rights and with respect to the prestige of the country and the state, it would be wrong to refuse to discuss this matter." Another MP, Mr. B. Cilevic, also defended the proposal and remarked that MPs once again had been confronted with a problem which the countries of the European Union were dealing with in 1960s, 1970s and had solved. He also pointed out: "To solve this problem in all its complexity, an alternative service is necessary. [..] In spite of unemployment and all related problems we still have a great many positions and jobs that nobody wants to take on. Usually [people suppose that - translators remark] these people whose religious conviction or conscience does not allow them to join army and handle weapons, they take a rest, but it is not just an advantage. Far from it! Usually the term of alternative service is much longer, about twice as long as the term of an ordinary compulsory service. Thus we will have to deal with this problem."
37 MPs voted for the proposal of the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs, against it were 4, while 35 remained undecided. Consequently, in accordance with the Regulations of the Parliament, the proposal was not adopted. A vote on the draft law The Amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service followed; 67 MPs voted for it, nobody was against, 3 were undecided. Consequently, the law was adopted.
In spite of the fact that the motion of the Commission of Human Rights and Public Affairs was not passed this time (one can put a certain hope on those 35 MPs who remained undecided in this vote), the Minister of Defence, Mr. Kristovskis proposal was adopted, namely, ordained clerics belonging to a confession registered by the Ministry of Justice and being trained in educational institutions of these organizations to become members of their clerical staff, are to be exempted from compulsory military service.
This amendment is an important step towards protection of human rights. Two ordained Jehovahs Witnesses clerics (Vladimir Gamayunov one of them) who had refused compulsory military service, are not considered law breakers any more; they can safely live and work in accordance with their conscience and conviction. However, we have to keep in mind that the fate of Roman Nemiro, another Jehovahs Witness we have come to know from the previous reports, is still uncertain, because the recently adopted Amendment to the Law On Compulsory Military Service has not changed his situation.
Riga, 11. 02. 2000.
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