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Refusing to Fight In a Violent Country

Objector in Colombia is harassed, jailed

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When Luis Gabriel Caldas was 18, he went to register for Army service just like other young Colombian men. But for Mr. Caldas, the trip was a hazardous mission: He tried to register as a conscientious objector.

"They asked me what I was talking about. They had never heard of it before," Caldas says.

Here in Colombia, where society has been polarized by violence, the concept of being a conscientious objector can be difficult to grasp. Refusal of military service is often seen as direct support of the country's leftist guerrillas, especially in light of the recent escalation in the guerrilla war.

Caldas has run into so much opposition, Colombian human rights activists say, that he has become a fugitive from military court as well as from numerous death threats. He lives in hiding.

Conscientious objection, the refusal of military service based on moral or religious grounds, is guaranteed by Article 18 of Colombia's Constitution. However, the obligation to "serve the country in time of need" is stated just as explicitly. The American Convention on Human Rights, which Colombia has ratified, guarantees freedom of conscience. Men in Colombia are required to spend two years in military service or one year before attending university.

It is difficult to determine how many Colombians escape military service, or how many of them could be classified as objectors. According to the Public Defender's Office, there are three conscientious objectors in prison now. Even for those who evade service, the price is high. Military service provides an all-important military-identification card. Without the card, it is impossible to attend university or be issued a passport or driver's license.

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