Swords to plowshares

  • 2000-12-07
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Religious fundamentalists from the Middle East are still fighting their jihad, but in Latvia religious people fight not to fight.

Last spring, Jehovah's Witnesses Romans Nemiro and Vladimirs Gamajunovs submitted a petition to the court. They were asking for exemption from military service duty since their religious beliefs didn't allow them to carry weapons. The court, however, ruled against them.

On Nov. 28, the Riga Vidzeme District Court started reviewing a similar petition submitted by Vladislavs Ganuta, also a Jehovah's Witness.

When it comes to exemption from military service in Latvia, the law is in a stalemate. On the one hand, it says all healthy men who are not studying must do military service. Still, Latvia has had since long a law protecting the rights of free thinking and religion.

"Jehovah's Witnesses are one of the churches whose members are excused from military service," head of Latvia's National Human Rights Office Olafs Bruvers said. "We'll have more court cases like this one."

Both an attorney at law and a Jehovah's Witness, Edgars Endzelis has defended other Witnesses in court several times.

"Until 1997 there were no problems at all," Endzelis said. "There was a law stating people could choose to do civil service instead of military service, but in 1997 the law was changed, and it's almost impossible to do civil service today."

Edgars Rinkevics, state secretary at the Ministry of Defense, said the alternative service offered before 1997 did not work out as planned.

"The option of doing alternative service was first offered at the end of the Soviet Union, and it was an option for young Latvian men not to serve in the Soviet army," Rinkevics said.

So far nobody has been sentenced to jail for refusing to serve in the Latvian armed forces. There have been court cases against young men refusing to go through their conscription period, but if they've lost in court, they've been sentenced to go into the army.

"Latvia should be ready for more problems like this," Bruvers said. "We should study other European countries, and maybe we can learn from their mistakes."

Still, there's fear among officials that changes to the law will open the door for men who don't want to do military service but lack a reason for it. There is, however, a working group under the Ministry of Defense trying to come up with solutions to problems pertaining to who will do military service and who will get off the hook.

Rinkevics said the idea for this working group was initiated by the Defense Ministry.

"Our deadline for the final report is next year during the summer," Rinkevics said. "Then it will have to be presented to the government."

There are three options the working group is considering. The first is to grant the opportunity to do alternative service for the state, the second is to keep the law as it is written today and the third option is to make amendments to the existing law, and these for exemption status and for what reasons.

"It'll be difficult to decide who'll be responsible for organizing alternative service duty and how it would be financed," Rinkevics said.

Endzelis said he had been told by military officials that the new law could be in force by spring 2002.

"Until then, the only thing we can do is to hope the draft board will forget to draft these people [Jehovah's Witnesses]," Endzelis said.

Bruvers admitted the new law could open a gateway for draft evaders, and he suggests a special committee with people from different sections of society should review whether people are believers or not.

"But what sort of rights members of this committee should have must be discussed," Bruvers said.

Rinkevics' personal opi-nion is that the already existing conscription law offers plenty of opportunities to evade military service.

"People who study in universities don't have to do military service," Rinkevics said.

Endzelis said the government is in favor of exemptions for Jehovah's Witnesses, but it doesn't know how to organize them.

"In Germany, every second person does civil service, but in Finland almost everybody does military service."

Not only Jehovah's Witnesses are asking the state to relieve them from their military duties. A lot of pacifists are doing the same, but Bruvers said there's no article in the law protecting the rights of pacifists.

Rinkevics said there are always problems with Jehovah's Witnesses, and they always try to escape military service by using all legal means available.

"On the one hand, it's difficult to question people's beliefs, but on the other, people have duties toward the state," he said.

So far the working group hasn't come up with anything concrete, and the question who will be given the right to question people's beliefs remains a touchy one.

"Disciples of Christ know that in the present situation they cannot use the sword, and they have to be neutral in politics," Endzelis said. "Jehovah's Witnesses don't want to be martyrs."

In many European countries it's almost enough by saying one's a pacifist to be relieved from conscription duties, but this isn't good enough in Latvia.

Endzelis said he really believed there were many pacifists in Latvia, but he wouldn't want to guess how many there could be.

"I asked some students what they thought about the army, and they said they don't like it and that they'll find ways to escape it if they can," Endzelis said.

Jehovah's Witnesses are probably most famous for refusing blood transfusions, doing house calls and making some wrong prophecies. They have officially announced the second coming of Christ and the Armageddon for six dates: 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941 and 1975.

The Witnesses refuse to have a blood transfusion based on the command against eating blood (Lev 17:10).

"There are around 2,100 active Jehovah's Witnesses in Latvia," Endzelis said. "These are the members that will show up at your door, but counting more passive members, the number could be doubled."

Worldwide the organization has between 5.7 million and 6.1 million members. It was founded by Charles T. Russel in 1852, but the first formal organization was in Pittsburgh in 1872.

In Latvia it's not easy to convince the authorities about one's convictions and beliefs. It just might prove to be difficult to register a religious organization.

"Every religious organization has to re-register every year for 10 years after its first registration," Endzelis said. "This is a big problem for religious organizations in Latvia. We were delayed by four weeks with our registration, and other organizations were delayed up to six weeks."