Belarus: progress for conscientious objectors?

As reported on CO-Update No 54, February/March 2010, Belorussian President Lukashenko ordered the drafting of a law on substitute service on 18 February 2010. Following this order, Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky issued an instruction on 31 March 2010 to set up an Interagency Working Group to draft a law on substitute service. The Working Group includes 13 members from different government ministries and agencies, and is to submit a draft to the Council of Ministers by 1 September 2010.

Presently, conscientious objectors to military service can be charged under article 435, Part 1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes refusing the call-up to military service with a fine or imprisonment of up to two years, although article 57 of the Constitution guarantees the right to conscientious objection: "(1) It shall be the responsibility and sacred duty of every citizen of the Republic of Belarus to defend the Republic of Belarus.
(2) The procedure governing military service, the grounds and conditions for exemption from military service, and the substitution thereof by alternative service shall be determined by law.
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In the last year, several conscientious objectors had been put on trial for violation of article 435 (1), with mixed results. Conscientious objectors Ivan Mikhailov and Dmitry Smyk had initially been punished, but their sentences were overturned on appeal, although Dmitry Smyk faces a new hearing on 16 July on appeal of the prosecution against his acquittal. Conscientious objector Yevhen Yakovenko is presently appealing against a sentence of one year restricted freedom. On 4 June 2010, he was sentenced by the Gomel Central District Court to one year of restriction of his rights, and is not allowed to leave Gomel. He lodged his appeal on 14 June 2010.

According to Forum 18 News, Jehovah's Witnesses are usually exempted from military service. Pavel Yadlovsky of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News that each year his organisation sends certificates to local military commissariats confirming that named individuals claiming to be Jehovah's Witnesses who have requested not to perform military service on grounds of conscience are indeed members. "There are about 30 or 40 people each year we do this for," he told Forum 18 from Minsk on 25 June. "Some military commissariats take account of the Constitutional Court ruling from 2000 calling for a law on alternative service to be adopted."

Pashkevich of the organisation For Alternative Civilian Service, which campaigns for the right to conscientious objection, told Forum 18 News Service that they would prefer that conscientious objectors only need to inform the authorities of their conscientious objection, without the need to "prove" their conscience.

Sources: Forum 18 News Service: BELARUS: Will proposed new Alternative Service Law respect conscientious objections? 29 June 2010, Forum 18 News Service: BELARUS: Contradictory court rulings for conscientious objectors, 28 June 2010