By Choe Sang-Hun

The New York Times (29.11.2018) – – Fifty-eight young men who had been imprisoned for refusing to serve in South Korea’s military were released from prisons across the country on Friday, after a landmark court ruling that supported the rights of conscientious objectors.


The ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court on Nov. 1 acquitted a conscientious objector for the first time in the country’s history. The court recognized “conscience or religious beliefs” as a justifiable reason to refuse to serve in the military.


For decades, South Korea has required all able-bodied men in South Korea to serve a minimum of 21 months in the armed forces under a conscription system seen as crucial to the country’s defense against North Korea. The punishment of those who cited their religious beliefs in refusing to serve has been both uniform and harsh.


Guided by the Nov. 1 ruling, lower courts are expected to dismiss cases against 930 men, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are currently on trial for refusing to do mandatory service in the armed forces if they are determined to be conscientious objectors.


But the Supreme Court ruling did not affect 71 men who said they were conscientious objectors but were already serving 18-month sentences after their appeals had been exhausted.


On Friday, the Justice Ministry paroled 58 of those 71 men, including 57 Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have served at least one-third of their sentence, allowing them to perform community service for the remainder of what would have been their prison terms.


“Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world applaud this latest development,” said Paul Gillies, international spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “As families welcome their sons back home, we share their joy. We commend the government for acting on the recent Supreme Court decision by swiftly releasing these young men.”


Each year, South Korea has sent hundreds of young men, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, to prison by invoking its Military Service Act, which calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve without “justifiable” reasons.


Amnesty International and the Jehovah’s Witnesses say more than 19,300 South Korean conscientious objectors have gone to prison since the 1950-53 Korean War.


The country’s Constitutional Court first objected to the decades-old practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors. In June, it ruled that the failure to offer alternative forms of civilian service to conscientious objectors was unconstitutional, and gave the government until the end of next year to introduce the option of performing alternative civilian services, like working in prisons.


The rulings come despite fears among some South Koreans that legalizing conscientious objection will undermine the country’s national defense. North and South Korea are still technically at war and share the most heavily fortified border in the world.




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