The conscientious objectors and their treatment

The institution of conscription is introduced in Greece in 1911, a short while before the involvement of the country in a series of consecutive wars (the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the campaign to Ukraine, the Asia Minor campaign). The duration of this involvement (more then one decade) and the consequent exhaustion of the soldiers – many of whom were enlisted in 1911 and were discharged in 1923 – resulted to the first mass desertions from the Greek army.

For the next 60 years the conscientious objectors come exclusively from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The military courts were convicted them to very heavy sentences, and as a result of successive convictions they were usually imprisoned for 10 to 15 years in military prisons. During the Greek Civil War certain conscientious objectors were sentenced to death and executed.

In September 1977, on the last day of the Parliamentary sessions, the Karamanlis government of New Democracy (right party) passes law 731, under the pressure of international organizations and especially of the Council of Europe. According to this law, those who refuse to be drafted for religious reasons can choose between serving a four-year unarmed service in a camp and getting imprisoned for four years in military prisons, being exempted afterwards from any new call to serve. Two years before, during the constitutional reform of 1975, the proposal of PA.SO.K. (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement) for the institution of an alternative civil service for those who refuse to serve their military service for religious or ideological reasons had been rejected by the ruling party of New Democracy.

Although the movement for the respect of the soldiers’ rights was particularly active, the issue of non-religious conscientious objection remained a taboo for the political parties and the youth movement, since the democratization and control of the army, as the interference of the people in the secluded sectors of the system, were considered a major aim which required the participation of the “politically conscious” citizens in the existing institutions.

The political questioning of some of these institutions and especially of the obligatory military service initially gains ground between the emerging ecological teams, in the circles of draft-evaders and in a part of the anti-authoritarian movement. The first occasional reports on the subject occur around 1982-1984, while the “Ecological Newspaper”, as well as the exceptional at that time publication of the magazine “I Deny”, come to give voice to and to direct the newborn movement of support. The movement develops international relations, the action events and the articles multiply, a relative cohesion is achieved and the direct objectives do not cause conflict yet: the release from prison of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the cease of the prosecutions, and the institution of an alternative civilian social service.

In 1986-87 the first non-religious conscientious objectors appear. Their statements are subversive, they have a humanitarian character, they do not limit the refusal in some kind of army or political system, and they promote non-violence and social disobedience. In March 1987, 28 year-old Michalis Maragakis, the first one who made his refusal to enlist publicly known, is arrested, and in June he is convicted to a four-year imprisonment sentence.

The government persists in its hard attitude, despite the impressive movement of support that is developed in Greece and internationally. The lack of political will is covered by estimates on the non-compliance of the conscientious objection and the alternative service with the constitution. After his appeal hearing in February of 1988 the sentence of Maragakis becomes 26-month imprisonment. On the 22nd of the same month he begins a hunger strike which stops the first of May when the government, alarmed by the international support, states that they will examine the issue of conscientious objection under a positive prism.

On April 12th of the same year conscientious objector Thanasis Makris is arrested and goes on a hunger strike in solidarity with Maragakis. On May 26th he is convicted to a five-year imprisonment sentence (reduced later to 18 months) and he begins a new hunger strike in which Maragakis accompanies him. This strike stops in July when the government announces a bill. This draft law, which also provided for an alternative civil service of double duration, was never introduced for discussion in the Parliament.

During the imprisonment of Maragakis and Makris an enormous international campaign of thousands of support letters is developed bringing the government in defense position. In Greece tens of concerts and events are organized in support of Maragakis and Makris, while more than twenty persons declare conscientious objectors for ideological reasons.

Michalis Maragakis is released in December 1988 after three successive hunger strikes of 71, 50 and 20 days, while Thanasis Makris is released in July 1989 after two strikes of 55 and 33 days. Both of them are released having served the 2/3 of their sentence. Meanwhile, a new law provides for unarmed military service for the ideological conscientious objectors as well (February 1988). However, nobody makes use of the new regulation.

The same period, and as evolution of the groups supporting Maragakis and Makris, the Association of the Greek Conscientious Objectors is founded by 12 persons who declare themselves conscientious objectors during a press conference in Athens (18th of November 1987). Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to be jailed (those years there were always about 400 of them in military prisons serving four-year imprisonment sentences), the prosecutions against the non-religious conscientious objectors, with the exception of the administrative sanctions, are suspended.

The situation changes in May 1991 when Nikos Maziotis is arrested. The arrest of Pavlos Nathanail follows in September. In their statements they declare as reason for their objection their class/anti-authoritarian conscience and they declare their unwillingness to serve any form of alternative civilian service. They are convicted to one year imprisonment sentence suspended for 3 years and they are released, while new marching orders are delivered to them, a usual practice of the recruiting authorities. Maziotis is arrested again on the 9th of October 1992. He begins a hunger strike that will last 50 days and will stop with his release.

In 1992, the government of New Democracy announces the preparation of a bill whose course is terminated by the end of the year when the (solely consultative) Legal Council of the State rejects it as non-compliant with the constitution. The next governments spread rumors about a bill which will recognize conscientious objection, trying with various tricks like the “social service in the army” to minimize the pressures both from abroad and from the interior of the country. The conscientious objectors have reached around 100, although they are not all willing to serve an alternative civil service, if and when it is provided by law.

Most conscientious objectors have moved from their homes and the authorities do not pursue them, a situation that will change with the arrest of Nikos Karanikas in 1995. Karanikas is transferred to a military prison and convicted to a four-year imprisonment sentence for draft evasion in a time of general mobilization. In December 1995 and following a big movement of support, the military court of appeal reduces his sentence to one-year imprisonment suspended for three years. Nevertheless, while he was leaving the court room he was delivered with new marching orders. Karanikas does not report for duty so henceforth he is charged with desertion. Also charged with desertion, Nikos Maziotis, arrested in the meantime for another offence, is convicted in 1998 to a ten-month imprisonment sentence which the court of appeal reduces to eight-month.

In the meantime, and after the Association of Greek Conscientious Objectors together with the Savas Karsitlari Dernegi (War Resisters of Izmir) were honored with the Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze Peace Prize by the German E.A.K. (Evangelische Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Betreuung der Kriegsdienstverweigerer) (February 1997), the Greek Parliament passed a law introducing, with big delay in comparison with the rest of Europe, a kind of civil social service as alternative to the military service (Law 2510 of 27/6/1997). The term conscientious objector is mentioned for the first time in a legal text, without though marking the formal recognition of the human right. This is clearly shown by the preamble, where it is stated that “dealing with the relative issue of the conscientious objectors, respecting always the obligatory and catholic character of the military service, is necessary and for the compliance of the country with obligations undertaken under international conventions”. The main law ruling the refusal of conscription for reasons of conscience today is law 3421/2005.

The attitude of the army hardens a lot immediately after the law is voted. The first Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse to serve an alternative service are convicted to a six-year imprisonment sentence (double time than the duration of the alternative service at that time), while Lazaros Petromelidis and Yannis Chrysovergis appeal against the excessively long duration and the conditions of serving the alternative service. Petromelidis is arrested near his residence and in April 1999 he is convicted to a four-year imprisonment sentence. Following a big movement of solidarity, the military court of appeal decides for his release.

As expected, the law did not solve the several and complex problems which had been accumulated all these years. Nevertheless, its voting was welcomed as a positive step both by abroad and by the Greek conscientious objectors who chose to support the institution with their participation. From 1998 until today, around 2000 conscientious objectors (the vast majority being Jehovah’s Witnesses) have served or are serving an alternative civilian service. However, the course of implementation of the institution has revealed a series of problems, for which additional legislative regulations are required. These regulations have been adequately analyzed in the exceptional report of the Greek Ombudsman (1999) as well as in the proposals of the National Commission for Human Rights.