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Sat, Oct 16, 1999 - Page 3 News List

Jehovah's Witnesses may get break under new law

PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE Legislators are fighting for the rights of a group of 28 conscientious objectors who refuse to perform obligatory military service


Following the failure of a judicial ruling to exempt the island's religious conscientious objectors from compulsory military service, legislators are now working to amend a military service law to save 28 Jehovah's Witnesses from lengthy prison terms.

The Council of Grand Justices, the island's highest legal authority, ruled on Oct. 1 that the military service law is not unconstitutional and no one may refuse service because of his religious convictions.

The Council's ruling has failed to resolve the issue for 28 Jehovah's Witnesses, who are currently in jail or on trial for refusing to serve in the military because of their religious beliefs.

The issue prompted legislators to try to pass amendments to the military service law in this legislative session.

DPP lawmaker Chien Hsi-chieh and KMT lawmaker Chiang Yi-wen co-sponsored a public hearing in the Legislative Yuan yesterday to seek solutions for the 28 Jehovah's Witnesses who, due to a legal loophole, have been jailed, released, recalled to the armed forces, and eventually returned to jail.

"We hope the issue can be resolved either by amending the military service law or through an administrative maneuver. Either way, we have to do justice to these people with respect to their freedom for conscientious objection," Chien said.

The Ministry of the Interior is to launch a program of civilian service beginning next July, allowing 5,000 male citizens a year to choose to serve terms either in the police, social work, firefighting, or environmental protection.

The ministry has agreed to postpone induction for other conscientious objectors who have reached the age for military service but are not yet in service, until next July, when alternative services are to be implemented.

Facts about Taiwan's military conscription

Exempted from service:

* Anyone who is physically deformed, handicapped, or with an incurable illness

Prohibited from service:

* Anyone who has been sentenced to more than seven years in jail (except if less than four years served because of pardon, commutation, or parole)

Currently jailed or on trial for refusing to serve:

* 16 sentenced to less than two years in jail and will immediately face recall order by the military when released

* Eight sentenced to seven years in prison and will still be recalled in case of parole or commutation

* Four currently being tried (some of whom have been through the process of "refusing to serve, imprisoned, and being recalled" more than once)

However, the 28 conscientious objectors already in jail or on trial will still need to serve out their terms.

"The fate of the 28 people is still at stake until next July. We're trying to solve their problem as soon as possible. It's very inhuman to keep them in jail for any longer," Chiang said. "Hopefully, we can get the amendments passed by the end of this year. And once the change takes place, it will be able to keep all 28 people out of jail."

Conscientious objectors have for a long time been refusing to serve in the armed forces at the risk of facing long prison terms.

The military service law prohibits anyone who has received a sentence of over seven years, or has stayed in jail for over four years from performing military service.

To avoid ever serving in the military, the Jehovah's Witnesses sought jail sentences longer than seven years when they were tried.

However, if their prison term is reduced to less than four years by pardon or parole, military service would then be required again.

"I was very glad to be sentenced to eight years in prison as I know I could be prohibited for life from military service. I still felt glad when my term was reduced to four years a year later," said Wu Tsung-hsien (吳宗賢), a Witness who has been jailed twice and is currently on trial for the fourth time in the past ten years.

"But I felt so frustrated when my term was reduced for the second time. I had served three years, nine months, and twenty days in total, but that just couldn't stop me from being recalled to the military," Wu said.

The Ministry of National Defense has drafted its own version of the amendments to the service law, which will prohibit anyone who has been sentenced to five years in prison from serving.

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