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Meeting Finland's Imprisoned Conscientious Objectors

Amnesty calls them prisoners of conscience, and their numbers are small but growing. Last year, Finland sentenced at least 40 conscientious objectors to prison or house arrest. That's up from 12 the year before.

Jari Koivisto and his fiancée, Susanna, at home this year during house arrest. Photo by David Mac Dougall

It doesn't look much like prison. At 7 AM each morning Jari Koivisto leaves the new-build home he shares with his pregnant fiancée on the outskirts of Helsinki and goes to work at a car rental company. Every day at 5 PM he comes home again. But with an ankle monitoring bracelet, strict curfews, drugs and alcohol tests, and frequent visits from the ominously titled Criminal Sanctions Agency, this is how the 28-year-old is serving his six months of house arrest.


Koivisto lives this way because he has refused to do mandatory military or civilian service. Amnesty calls them prisoners of conscience, and their numbers are small but growing. Last year, Finland sentenced at least 40 conscientious objectors to prison or house arrest. That's up from 12 the year before.

From age 18, Finnish law requires all men to undertake a period of military service. The length of service time varies, up to about a year, and every recruit goes through basic training before being assigned a job in the army, air force, or navy. For a country like Finland, which has not been at war since April 1945, the numbers of men who go to military service remain robustly high, fueled by national pride and a sense of wary pragmatism toward a 500-mile border with Russia to the east.

Around 25,000 young men undertake military service each year, or close to 80 percent of those who are eligible. Another 5 percent opt for civilian service—working in an office, or volunteering for a charity—and roughly 15 percent are exempted on medical grounds.

So the number of men who are sentenced for objecting to all forms of national service is tiny. But in a country like Finland, which finds itself at or near the top of any number of indices—for press freedom; global education ranking; best place to be a womanleast fragile nation; world's happiest country—it's somewhat surprising that anyone at all would be jailed for his or her political or moral beliefs.


Back in the Helsinki suburbs, Koivisto is determined to stick to his curfew, although prison service staff told him most people screw it up one way or another. His arrival and departure times from home are monitored by an electronic ankle tag—made in Israel—which is tied into a base station and monitored regularly. Before the sentence started, Koivisto had to submit a list of places he would likely visit, such as relatives' homes, specific shops, the gym, or the health center. He can't stray from his approved list. The way he spends his 15 hours of free time each week is agreed upon one month in advance. So if he wants to visit his sister, go for a run, or get a haircut, that has to be approved in advance by the Criminal Sanctions Agency. In June, Koivisto had a celebratory whisky after Midsummer, a Christian solstice festival that Finns tend to approach with gusto. When agents arrived the next day to test him, they found traces of Lagavulin 16-year-old Islay single malt in his bloodstream. That earned him a warning. Any more transgressions and he'll be thrown in jail for the remainder of his sentence.

"I definitely think I've done nothing wrong," says Koivisto, stuck inside with his fiancée on one of the hottest days of summer in Helsinki. "How can a country imprison someone based on political or moral reasons?" He knows that sort of treatment happens regularly in countries like Iran, Belarus, China, or Syria; he just doesn't expect it in a country as outwardly respectful of human rights as Finland. He's also aware the punishment handed down to him is far more comfortable than in an authoritarian state—by any definition of incarceration, this is not a harsh prison experience.


But it turns out that Koivisto is something of a feminist, too. His reason for refusing national service speaks to a core tenet of Finland's national identity: gender equality. He chose a custodial sentence, rather than national service, because he believes the law itself discriminates against men.

"The biggest thing for me is equality of the whole system. When you think about Finland's constitution, there's no discrimination," he says. While women can volunteer for military service, the mandatory service law only applies to men. And this is the perceived injustice that Koivisto is fighting against. "If the government forces me to do military service, they should make women do it too, based on equality."

For their part, the Finnish military seems to agree—up to a point. "Gender equality has been a cornerstone in Finland of post-independence history and still is," said Captain Ville Kostian, a staff officer from the Finnish Defense Command's Personnel Division, citing a UN report from July that ranks Finland at number 8 on the Gender Development Index. However, "the current generation of young men is sufficient to meet the Defense Forces' general needs," he adds.

Soldier during basic training at Helsinki's Santahamina barracks, 2009. Photo courtesy of Tiina Möttönen/Finnish Defense Forces

Finland does have women serving in the professional military; some 700 apply to join each year. But making the military service law gender-equal, applicable to both men and women, would be a huge undertaking in terms of infrastructure and budget commitments for the Finns, who cling to their cherished national service operations in the face of widespread military restructuring and swingeing budget cuts. Other countries, like Sweden and Germany, have abandoned theirs. "Training of both genders, men and women, the whole age class, would require more resources," concludes Kostian.


In the past, Finland didn't have much of a problem with a civilian or quasi-military role for women in society. During the country's Winter War (1939–1940) and Continuation War (1941–1944), a quarter of a million Finnish women volunteered in an organization called Lotta Svärd, named after the wife of a fictional literary soldier. The Lotta Svärd women filled the jobs of men who went to the front to fight the Russians, and worked in hospitals tending to the wounded; or as air raid wardens, lookouts, and in one case manning an anti-aircraft battery position. The Lotta Svärd organization was disbanded by treaty stipulation with the Russians after the wars ended, but there is certainly precedence in recent Finnish history for the mass induction of women into some form of national service.

Of course, not all male conscientious objectors are cheerleaders for the feminist cause of gender equality, like Koivisto.

In downtown Helsinki, Henri Sulku is enjoying the unusually hot summer weather while he can. The 23-year-old political science student was recently sentenced to 173 days of house arrest, which is set to begin during August.

"Officials say it's because I broke the law. As I see it, the act of refusal is an act of expressing one's ideology or ethical position," says Sulku, whose main motive for refusing national service is "both anti-war and anti-authority." He'll be subject to a range of controls, electronic tagging, curfews, and tests but still be allowed to attend classes at Helsinki University, where friends, he says, have been "quite supportive."


Before tagging and home detention became an option a few years ago, conscientious objectors simply went to prison. One of the most infamous prisoners in the last decade was Henrik Rosenberg, one half of popular Finnish rap duo Fintelligens, who performs under the name "Iso H" (Big H). Rosenberg had a string of hit albums to his name when he was sentenced in 2006 to 197 days in prison.

"I knew from the start that all total objectors go to prison," says Rosenberg, who is now 35 and still works in the music industry. "I wasn't nervous or worried, only annoyed that it took almost two years for the legal process." That lengthy legalistic foot-dragging is a complaint of many objectors. They know they'll eventually end up with a custodial sentence; it just takes a while to get to that point.

Cover art for Iso H solo album, in a mocked-up prison cell, 2007. Photo courtesy of Henrik Rosenberg

Rosenberg served his time at an open prison in Helsinki. This was no hard labor camp—he was on day release to go to his recording studio, and the prison sauna was fired up every night except Mondays—but it was still a restriction of liberty.

The rap star's sentencing sparked a wider debate in Finland, as Iso H wasn't shy about giving media interviews to explain his reason for refusing national service. He wasn't anti-war, but against the concept of forced service of any kind. "I think it made a lot of people think and question the rationale behind conscription. The discussion is not over yet, but I think I managed to nudge it in the right direction."


It's not hard to provoke a discussion in Finland about the subject, especially in a sauna or after a couple of shots of murky brown Fisherman's Friend–flavored vodkas. The very idea of military service is inextricably linked to national identity, patriotism, independence, and sisu—a Finnish word meaning gutsy, stubborn determination and drive. Everyone has an opinion on whether the system works or not. Whether women should undertake some form of national service. Whether women should be in the military at all. Whether Finland's military doctrine—of mass-infantry call-up in times of war—isn't outdated and poorly suited to the realities of modern warfare. Whether exemptions for Jehovah's Witnesses, Olympic athletes, and NHL ice-hockey stars are fair.

For now, public opinion is not on the side of the objectors. A petition that aims to overhaul the system has so far failed to gather the minimum number of signatures required to trigger a debate in parliament; and a Defense Ministry poll carried out last autumn showed 68 percent of Finns support the current model of national service and military conscription.

It's a safe bet to say that everyone in Finland knows someone who is currently doing military service. One friend has been posting pictures on Facebook: the fresh shaved head of a new recruit; the obligatory selfie in drab olive camo. "There's a Finnish saying, 'Armeija tekee miehen,'" he tells me by email, during a weekend furlough. "The army makes the man."

With such ingrained attitudes, Koivisto and other prisoners of conscience might be fighting the system a while longer, and it's a battle they may never win.

"I'm not against defending our country," says Koivisto—"just how we go about doing it."

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