Does Danish Law Conflict with Freedom of Conscience?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Denmark
IS Danish law in conflict with an internationally recognized principle of freedom? A decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Denmark some months ago seems to answer, Yes.
The principle is included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Denmark subscribed in 1971. The principle holds that a person cannot be punished more than once for one violation of the law.
However, the Supreme Court of Denmark has decided that a person can be sentenced twice for the same violation. The decision involves those who are conscientious objectors to compulsory military or alternate service.
The matter began in a lower court. It involved the case of a young engineer, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because of his strong belief in God’s laws, he conscientiously objected to military or alternate service.
The court sentenced the young man to jail. After serving his term, he was again called up for compulsory service. He maintained the same position based on his conscientious beliefs in God’s laws, and refused to be inducted. The court again sentenced him to prison, this time for a longer period, eight months.
However, this sentence was appealed to a higher court, the Superior Court, on the grounds that a person cannot be sentenced twice for the same violation. The court avoided taking a stand one way or another regarding the principle at issue. But it did shorten the prison term to three months.
The case was then appealed to Denmark’s highest court, the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the judgment should be declared void because the first punishment should have been sufficient. A second sentence violates the principle that Denmark agreed to when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
What Others Have Done
In the young man’s defense before the Supreme Court, it was noted that a number of countries have changed their views on this matter. Years ago, many countries sentenced conscientious objectors who were Jehovah’s Witnesses to severe prison terms.
At times, the sentencing was done in such a way that the Witnesses were called up again and sentenced anew to an additional prison term. This was repeated, over and over. Many thus served between 10 and 20 years in prison because of this.
But gradually, in other countries, particularly in the Western world, many authorities felt a growing distaste for such heavy sentences. They saw the unreasonableness of sending to prison young men whose only conflict with the law was on the matter of faith and conscience.
Hence, many lands have since modified the punishment for conscientious objection. For example, in the Netherlands, officials have chosen not to sentence such conscientious objectors who are dedicated Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Sweden, the authorities make a separate investigation in every case of a conscientious objector who is a Witness. On the basis of the investigation, the government decides not to call up the Witness at present. This procedure has been followed for 11 years, and a recent investigation has led to the suggestion that Jehovah’s Witnesses be exempt from being called up in the future.
Also noted were the actions of the constitutional court of the Federal Republic of Germany. Several years ago it handed down a decision that freed Jehovah’s Witnesses from being sentenced more than one time. This decision rested on the principle ne bis in idem, that is, double jeopardy. This principle holds that a person cannot be put on trial and punished more than once for the same violation.
Also, the country of Greece has recently modified the punishment for conscientious objectors, and now a law requiring that conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the army due to their religious beliefs be sentenced to a prison penalty also stipulates that, when released from prison, they are to be exempt from such service or training.
Thus, the attorney for the defense asked the Danish Supreme Court: “How can it be that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany can be released on the basis of this principle, but not in Denmark?”
Law Improperly Framed
The thought was expressed to the court that the members of Denmark’s parliament may not have been aware of the fact that this legal principle against double jeopardy was included in the International Covenant that Denmark signed. Had they been aware of it, then a 1975 change in the military law allowing for repeated convictions likely would not have been made. The law would have been formulated in another way to incorporate the fine principle of the International Covenant regarding double jeopardy.
True, this change in Danish military law might now allow for repeated convictions of conscientious objectors. But it should not be interpreted that way in view of the covenant, the attorney for the defense told the court.
He also asked if it was not the responsibility of the Minister of Interior (who called up the conscientious objectors twice) and the responsibility of the Minister of Justice (who brought charges against them twice) to see that the law was not interpreted wrongly.
Respect for Human Rights
The point was made to the court that demands have been raised internationally that human rights be respected. It has become a major issue world wide. In view of this, should not a country such as Denmark follow principles protecting human rights where conscientious objectors are concerned, just as do Sweden, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany?
It was observed that the issue of human rights includes the mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, in an opinion before the court, Professor Erik Siesby of the University of Copenhagen remarked: “The treatment of military objectors, especially persons who, as members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, are military objectors on the grounds of conscience, is right now the subject of international investigation and debate.”
Professor Siesby said that the case before Denmark’s Supreme Court “will arouse international attention, and the decision will become a significant interpretative basis, among other things, in relation to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Yes, other nations will see how Denmark has handled the cases of these conscientious objectors. And even those who have signed the covenant on civil and political rights may view Denmark’s decision as a precedent, a very bad one, for handling their own conscientious objectors.
Why Punished Twice?
But why are Jehovah’s Witnesses punished twice for the same violation in Denmark?
The defense attorney for Jehovah’s Witnesses offered some thoughts on this to the Supreme Court. He stated: “Repeated punishing of military objectors, who are motivated by their religious conviction, can be rationally explained as an expression of doubt on the part of the authorities as to the strength, seriousness and perseverance of the religious conviction. By calling up again a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses who has already served his punishment for military objection, with a renewed threat of punishment, is expressed the hope that either the sentence served will cause the convict to change his mind, or that the renewed threat of punishment will cause him to abandon his conviction or to act in conflict with it.”
However, the court was told that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not abandon their convictions based on God’s laws. For example, the accused in this case wrote a letter to his conscription board while he was serving the first sentence. His letter was read aloud to the court. He stated: “I will not change my stand even though you sentence me to several hundred years in prison.”
An additional negative factor in repeated punishment is that it brings greater interference in the life of a person than does one combined sentence. With one sentence served, the person can then resume his normal life. But repeated sentences leave the person in a constant state of uncertainty, greatly disrupting his life.
Thus, the Dutch lawyer Hein Van Wijk, considered the person best acquainted with the legal treatment of conscientious objectors in Europe, fittingly compared the practice of sentencing objectors several times to a cat playing with a mouse.
Decision Handed Down
The appeals and reasonings proved futile. Denmark’s Supreme Court handed down its decision confirming the judgments of the lower courts. The conviction would stand.
The court also added that the prison sentence should be changed from three months back to eight months! And the accused was ordered to pay all the costs incurred in the case.
Does this decision of Denmark’s Supreme Court show that Danish law violates the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? Does the decision violate common decency as well? Impartial observers agree that it does.
[Blurb on page 10]
“The case was then appealed to Denmark’s highest court, the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the judgment should be declared void because the first punishment should have been sufficient.”
[Blurb on page 11]
“The treatment of military objectors, especially persons who, as members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, are military objectors on the grounds of conscience, is right now the subject of international investigation and debate.”—Professor Erik Siesby, University of Copenhagen
[Blurb on page 11]
“His letter was read aloud to the court. He stated: ‘I will not change my stand even though you sentence me to several hundred years in prison.’”