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MARCH 17, 2014

Turkey Refuses to Conform to European Standards in the Matter of Conscientious Objection

“Every Turk is born a soldier.” That saying is taught to schoolchildren, declared in political speeches, and drilled into men called up for military service. Military service is mandatory for all male Turkish citizens and induction is a cause for celebration. It may come as no surprise, then, that the government of Turkey refuses to recognize the fundamental right of conscientious objection to military service.

Turkey is one of the few countries in the Council of Europe that does not recognize the right to conscientious objection

Yet, as a member State of the Council of Europe, and having adopted the European Convention on Human Rights as part of its national law, Turkey has committed itself to abide by European standards. Since the decision by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Bayatyan v. Armenia, Turkey has a formal obligation to the Council of Europe to recognize the right to conscientious objection. Because it has refused to do so, conscientious objectors in Turkey suffer the consequences.

Over the past 10 years, 55 men who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have petitioned the Turkish government to recognize their right to conscientious objection. Because their petitions have been denied, they have faced numerous prosecutions, burdensome fines, and in the case of some, years in prison. Currently, 15 young Witness men in Turkey are facing repeated prosecution for their refusal to serve in the military.

‘I Must Follow the Dictates of My Conscience’

“I do not believe that a powerful State should be able to force me to act against my Bible-trained conscience and the God-inspired words of Isaiah 2:4, [which] I believe I must obey.” That well-known verse, inscribed in stone in front of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, states that people opposed to war would ‘beat swords into plowshares and not learn war anymore.’ With these words Feti Demirtaş, a citizen of Turkey then 25 years old, explained why he was willing to give up his freedom and go to prison rather than serve in the military. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Feti believes strongly in following the dictates of his Bible-trained conscience. For that reason, Feti has been prosecuted ten times and has served in prison for more than a year and a half.

When first arrested, a sergeant ordered him to put on a military uniform but Feti refused—he chose to obey his Bible-trained conscience. The base commander then had him brought in front of 400 men and ordered Feti to put on the military uniform. Again he refused. During this first imprisonment, he was verbally abused, kicked in the head, shoulders, and legs, and slapped in the face by prison guards.

Upon his fifth arrest and imprisonment in April 2006, guards forced Feti to strip to his underwear so that he might put on the uniform. When he would not put on the uniform, guards put him in the disciplinary barracks for four days. In an effort to break his will, they handcuffed him to an iron bar of his bed at night and to prison bars during the day. Feti said, “I was fearful during the day and could not sleep at night due to my real and ever present fear of the type of mistreatment I might experience next. Although I was emotionally drained due to my treatment, I remained determined to live by my conscience.”

The European Court of Human Rights Weighs in on Conscientious Objection

In 2007 Feti Demirtaş submitted his case to the ECHR, arguing that the Turkish government violated his rights when sentencing him to prison as a conscientious objector. On January 17, 2012, the ECHR issued a judgment in his favor, confirming that Feti had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, causing severe pain and suffering. Further, the Court confirmed that the right of conscientious objection based on deeply held religious beliefs is a right protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. *

Following the Court’s clear expression on the issue of conscientious objection, Feti expected that Turkish authorities would put an end to the ongoing prosecutions against him. In fact, the Turkish government paid him 20,000 euros in damages, costs, and expenses as ordered by the ECHR. However, just four months after the ECHR judgment in Feti Demirtaş v. Turkey, Turkey’s Military Court again sentenced him to prison for two and a half months for refusing military service. Feti filed an appeal that is currently pending with the Military Court.

The UN Human Rights Committee Also Supports the Right to Conscientious Objection

Turkey has also disregarded recent directives from the UN Human Rights Committee. In 2008 two Witnesses, Cenk Atasoy and Arda Sarkut, filed complaints with that UN body, alleging that Turkish authorities violated their rights by subjecting them to repeated prosecution for their refusal to perform military service. In its Views adopted on March 29, 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that the men’s “refusal to be drafted for compulsory military service derives from their religious beliefs” and their “subsequent prosecution and sentences amount to an infringement of their freedom of conscience, in breach of article 18, paragraph 1, of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”

How have Turkish authorities responded to these clear directives? They still expect these two conscientious objectors to report for military call-up every four months * or face prosecution and burdensome fines.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkey are determined to live by the Biblical command to love their fellowman. At the time of call-up for military service by Turkish authorities, each individual Witness must personally decide how he will respond. Feti Demirtaş and other Witnesses have determined for themselves that bearing arms is a violation of the Bible’s command and their conscience.

These young men look to their government to honor its legal commitments. The ECHR and the UN Human Rights Committee expect that Turkey will comply with the judgments and findings of their bodies, leading the authorities in Turkey to recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service. Until it does so, Turkey stands outside the Council of Europe in honoring this fundamental human right.

^ par. 10 This was not the first ruling by the ECHR against Turkey on the issue of conscientious objection. In November 2011 the Court rendered a judgment in favor of another Turkish Witness, Yunus Erçep, who had been indicted 41 times over a period of 14 years for his refusal to serve in Turkey’s military.

^ par. 14 The government recently adjusted military call-ups to every three months.