Reportage. ‘I don't want to be in the army. I am against war, against violence, I don't want weapons.’ The outcome of a lawsuit challenging Zelensky’s policy toward conscientious objectors is a foregone conclusion.

The number of conscientious objectors in Ukraine is growing

“The soldiers laugh at me, they say it’s a choice, either shoot or go to jail,” says Andrii Vyshnevetsky, a 34-year-old Ukrainian conscientious objector due to his Christian faith. “I don’t want to be in the army. I am against war, against violence, I don’t want weapons.” He was mobilized to Odessa in September 2022, despite having applied for alternative civilian service with the Red Cross; he currently serves in a military kitchen.

Vyshnevetsky has filed a lawsuit against President Zelensky before the Kyiv Supreme Court, arguing that the latter’s hostility to conscientious objection is illegal, and asking the Supreme Court to order the president to recognize the right to conscientious objection in line with the Ukrainian Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which recognize the freedom of thought, belief and conscience. The appeal will be heard on May 22 by the Supreme Court, but the outcome is a foregone conclusion – conviction and prison time, as happened on April 6 to Mykhailo Yavorsky, a 40-year-old objector from Ivano-Frankivsk, who was sentenced to one year for refusing compulsory mobilization.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s first conscientious objector since the beginning of the conflict, Vitaly Alekseenko, detained at Prison no. 41, was visited on April 14 by the chairwoman of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, Alexia Tsouni, who told the Norwegian human rights NGO Forum 18 that the Ukrainian ombudsman himself had denounced the excessive use of force against prisoners, violations of the right to privacy, poor hygienic conditions, as well as forcing detainees to stand during the entire time of air raid warnings.

The Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territories face an even worse fate. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented that in Crimea more than 3,000 men have been forcibly conscripted into the Russian armed forces, in violation of Article 51 of the Geneva Convention: “The Occupying Power may not compel protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces. No pressure or propaganda which aims at securing voluntary enlistment is permitted.”

Conscientious objectors and defectors are also being persecuted and imprisoned in Belarus. The pacifist organization Our House has estimated that more than 20,000 young people have left their country and sought refuge abroad because they feared being recruited. Belarus is one of the most militarized countries on the European continent, a veritable police state that has instituted the death penalty for deserters and is providing military training for children 6 and under. From exile, Olga Karach, the renowned Belarusian human rights and non-violence activist, put out a call for “mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in Belarus to encourage their boys not to join the military and to help them to escape from recruitment.”

Russian nonviolent activists are carrying out an online meeting campaign in which they respond to numerous requests and clandestinely circulate videos containing instructions for evading mobilization. They are also using encrypted Telegram channels for open consultations – the goal is to reach as many people as possible who refuse to participate in the war.

Go by the Forest is an NGO that protects objectors, which has helped more than 4,000 people, providing legal and psychological assistance, help in finding asylum, relocation across borders and financial aid. But even when they manage to leave the country, draft-age men can remain in Kazakhstan, Armenia or Georgia for only a few months, then are forced to choose between returning to Russia, where they will be arrested, or going underground.

May 15 marks the International Day of Conscientious Objection to Military Service across Europe. The international #ObjectWarCampaign calls for protection for Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian objectors and defectors who refuse to participate in the war. The online petition has received over 50,000 signatures.

The Italian partners of the international campaign (including Giuristi Democratici, Mir, Un Ponte Per, Movimento Nonviolento, Pax Christi) will demonstrate on Tuesday, May 16, in Rome, in front of the embassies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and then hold a press conference at the Nassirya Hall of the Senate.

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