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JUNE 11, 2014

European Court of Human Rights Decides in Favor of Four Conscientious Objectors in Turkey

European Court of Human Rights Decides in Favor of Four Conscientious Objectors in Turkey

On June 3, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously concluded that Turkey had violated the European Convention * when it convicted four of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkey for their conscientious objection to military service. Çağlar Buldu, Bariş Görmez, Ersin Ölgün, and Nevzat Umdu, refused to serve in the military because of their deeply held religious convictions. The ECHR judgment stated: “The measures taken against the applicants . . . are an interference that was not necessary in a democratic society within the meaning of Article 9 of the Convention.”

The four Witnesses filed an application with the Court (Buldu and Others v. Turkey) against the Turkish government on March 17, 2008, claiming that Turkey failed to respect their freedom of religion when it repeatedly prosecuted and convicted them for refusing military service. Collectively, they were subjected to over 30 call-ups and spent over six years in prison and in military detention.

The ECHR judgment stated: “The refusal by the applicants, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, to perform military service for reasons of conscience certainly was a manifestation of their religious beliefs. The Court has no doubt that the repeated convictions of the applicants, . . . as well as the risk of endless criminal prosecutions, . . . amount to an interference with their right to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion that is guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention.”

Bariş Görmez

This is the third judgment against Turkey on the issue of conscientious objection, following its ECHR rulings in favor of Feti Demirtaş in 2012 and of Yunus Erçep in 2011. Separately, in 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in favor of two other Witnesses in Turkey, Cenk Atasoy and Arda Sarkut, who likewise refused military service for reasons of conscience.

In Europe, the turning point on this issue came on July 7, 2011, when the Grand Chamber of the ECHR released its judgment in Bayatyan v. Armenia. For the first time, the ECHR found that Article 9 of the European Convention protects conscientious objectors who refuse military service. This ruling is binding on all member states of the Council of Europe. The Bayatyan judgment, the three ECHR judgments against Turkey, and other similar judgments by the ECHR obligate Turkey and other member states to reevaluate their treatment of conscientious objectors and to adjust their legislation in line with Convention guarantees.

James E. Andrik, one of the attorneys who represented the four applicants in this case, stated: “Although no Witnesses in Turkey are currently in prison for conscientious objection, the government continues to prosecute young Witness men who conscientiously object to military service. We hope that the recent judgment in Buldu and Others v. Turkey will move the Turkish government to respect the fundamental human right of freedom of conscience.”

^ Article 3, prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment; Article 6, right to a fair hearing; Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.