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Last conscientious objector freed from prison

Mar 01,2019
The final conscientious objector held in prison was released on parole on Thursday after the Supreme Court ruled last year that conscience or religious beliefs are valid reasons to refuse to serve in the military.

According to sources from the legal community, the Ministry of Justice held a parole hearing last Friday and decided to release the conscientious objector at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

The Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on Nov. 1, 2018, that “conscience or religious beliefs” are justifiable reasons to refuse military service, overturning five decades of precedents that punished conscientious objectors. Following that ruling, the Justice Ministry started releasing imprisoned conscientious objectors on Nov. 30. With Thursday’s release, all 70 contentious objectors in prison are now free.

The final inmate released was supposed to finish his term in August. An average prison term handed down to contentious objectors was 18 months.

While contentious objectors were released on parole, the government rejected a request for special pardons for them in honor of the centennial anniversary of the March 1 Independent Movement. President Moon Jae-in issued pardons to 4,378 convicts on Tuesday and they went effect on Thursday.

The objectors wanted their other criminal penalties to be removed through a pardon, according to Baek Jong-geon, a lawyer and conscientious objector who was imprisoned for 14 months.

“Even if you are released on parole, you are restricted from working as a public servant or at banks, going outside the country or running for office for the next five years,” Baek said. “If you are pardoned, all restrictions disappear.”

According to Baek, about 500 Jehovah’s Witnesses chose conscientious objection every year, meaning that about 2,500 currently face such restrictions. Baek said he was unable to practice law for years because of the Attorney-at-Law Act, which stipulates that lawyers cannot register their licenses within five years of leaving prison. He said his license was only registered in January, after three disapprovals since 2017.

The change was possible because of the latest landmark rulings by top courts. In June 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the failure to offer alternative forms of civilian service to conscientious objectors was unconstitutional and said the government had until the end of the year to introduce alternatives. The Supreme Court then took a step further in November, ruling that moral scruples and religious beliefs are valid reasons to refuse compulsory military service.

“We are still creating a plan to offer alternative services, and the people’s opinions are divided about it,” said a Justice Ministry official about why the conscientious objectors were excluded from the presidential pardon.

The Ministry of National Defense said in December last year that conscientious objectors will be sent to work at correctional facilities for 36 months. The plan will be drafted into a bill and submitted to the National Assembly early this year.

Supporters of conscientious objection are protesting the plan because it is twice as long as the 18-month conscription. On the other hand, conservatives have said the duration of the alternative service should be increased to 54 months.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]