Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey: Odd Men Out on Conscientious Objection

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Halil Savda at a Write for Rights event in France on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2011 (Photo Credit: Michael Sawyer for Amnesty International).

Halil Savda at a Write for Rights event in France on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2011 (Photo Credit: Michael Sawyer for Amnesty International).

This May 15, International Conscientious Objectors Day, is an opportunity to both celebrate the steady acceptance of this fundamental right and to highlight those countries who have not taken the basic steps to protect it.

In Europe for example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recognized conscientious objection as a protected right in 2011 when, in Bayatyan v Armenia, it ruled that conscientious objection was subject to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  Unfortunately, as an Amnesty statement released today highlights, three European countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, still refuse to accept this basic obligation under international law.

Amnesty’s position on conscientious objection is clear:

The right to conscientious objection to military service is not a marginal concern outside the mainstream of international human rights protection and promotion. The right to conscientious objection is a basic component of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – as articulated in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

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Prison (again) for a Man of Peace in Turkey

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Halil Savda (Photo Vedat Yıldız )

Halil Savda is in prison again.  On February 24, he was arrested in the town of Doğubeyazit, in Eastern Turkey, and sentenced to serve a hundred-day prison sentence.  His crime was to merely speak publicly in support of conscientious objectors.  This, according to Turkish law, constitutes “alienating the public from military service” and is a crime under Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code.

This is not the first time that Halil has been imprisoned for his beliefs (a video on him, produced by Amnesty last year, is available here).   Over a five year period, he was imprisoned, often under harsh conditions, for a total of seventeen months for refusing to serve in the military (Turkey, along with Azerbaijan, is one of only two countries within the Council of Europe that does not respect the rights of conscientious objectors).

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Crackdown in Turkey Continues

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In recent weeks, we have been detailing Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish activism and the round up of thousands of individuals on terrorism charges. Those arrested, including human rights activists, journalists, and politicians, have seldom been accused of actual violence; rather, under Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code, they have been accused of “being members of an illegal organization.”

Moreover, the Turkish government need not even demonstrate their guilt to deny them their freedom.  Extensive pre-trial detentions ensure that most will be imprisoned for lengthy periods regardless of the outcome of any eventual trial.  As Amnesty has previously noted:

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The High Cost Of Following Your Conscience In Turkey

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Halil Savda a conscientious objector in Turkey. (Photo Vedat Yıldız )

Halil Savda is going to prison again.  This time for 100 days following his conviction for ‘alienating the public from military service.’

Halil is a conscientious objector and a human rights defender who has faced continued harassment by the Turkish government.  His current sentence shines a light on the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey.

Since 2004, Halil Savda has been arrested on multiple occasions and jailed three times for refusing to perform military service as a conscientious objector, serving a total of seventeen months in military prisons.  Despite the fact that  conscientious objection is generally recognized as a right according to international human rights standards, Turkey is one of very few countries that makes no military exemption for conscientious objectors.

In 2008, in an effort to save face, the military declared Halil Savda “unfit for military service.”  Halil, however, continued to speak out in support of other conscientious objectors, resulting in his current conviction for ‘alienating the people from the institution of military service’—a criminal offence under Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code.

Article 318 violates Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which provide for the right to freedom of expression.  Turkey, as a signatory to these articles, is responsible under international law to abide by these requirements.

Until Turkey’s Article 318 is repealed, and Turkey recognizes the right to conscientious objection, Halil Savda and other anti-war Turkish citizens will continue to be imprisoned for their beliefs.  To quote Halil:

“It is a shame that in Turkey, conscientious objectors and those who support them are prosecuted for refusing to kill. There cannot be a more humane stance in the world than refusing to participate in wars. Yet Article 318 is a massive barrier to even expressing this opinion, making the call for peace and solidarity with other conscientious objectors a crime.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.