Valiantsin Stefanovich: ‘Criminal prosecution of Belarusian youth is caused by the absence of alternative service’
A 26-year-old resident of the village of Kalinauka (Luban district, Minsk region) Mikhail Mikhalenia is currently serving a term for fine evasion, following a sentence by Luban district court awarded in 2007 for draft evasion. Mikhalenia refused to join the army due to his religious beliefs, since the Belarusian legislation does not provide for an alternative service for Muslims.
My family adopted Islam in 2003. We stick to the laws of the Sharia and live according to the holy book of the Koran. Both the villagers and the local authorities know we live a different life style,’ says Ivan Mikhalenia, Mikhail’s father. ‘In 2006 my son was drafted to the army. However, there are no proper conditions for Muslim rituals in the army, for, firstly, the food is not suitable, and, secondly, we have to pray once a day. That is why my son did not follow the rulings of the military enlistment office. In December 2008 Mikhail was arrested by the police and taken to Zhodzina prison, where he had to spend a month. Then there was a trial. And, despite the lawyer’s objection indicating to the absence of proper conditions for Muslims in the Belarusian army, the court fined my son BYR 1,550,000.’
The Mikhalenias cannot afford to pay the fine, since all of them are currently unemployed.
‘Our Muslim family cannot find jobs. I myself have a qualified agronomist, my wife is an obstetrician. Our active political stance is another reason why we have not been able to get employed for so long. I used to be a farmer, used to own a farm. However, I was deprived of my land in 1999, having no possibilities to work the land. That is why when court executors came we told them we could not pay the fine,’ says Mr.Mikhalenia.
On 22 January 2009 Luban district court considered the criminal case against Mikhail Mikhalenia and found him guilty of fine evasion, awarding him a 3-month sentence.
In his comments upon the situation, the famous human rights lawyer Valiantsin Stefanovich stressed that the complexity of the case is conditioned by the issue of alternative service in the country.
‘In my opinion, the criminal case of Mikhail Mikhalenia is extremely typical, since Belarus has not been able to introduce alternative service yet, i.e. the service for the persons refusing and being unable to serve in the regular army due to their religious beliefs. Mr.Mikhalenia is a believer, belonging to the Muslim church and his refusal to join the army was attributed to his religious beliefs, for he cannot worship in full. However, he was prosecuted. It should be observed that the sentence was relatively mild, since he was first fined. Still, we think that the issue of alternative service is extremely topical. We also would like to stress that, with Belarus lacking alternative service, such cases of criminal prosecution may repeat in future,’ said Valiantsin Stefanovich.