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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

He Asked for Alternative Service, and Got Jail

KALUGA, Central Russia -- As any young man can tell you, there are plenty of ways to avoid military service in Russia. There are loopholes involving marriage, divorce and fatherhood. There are medical certificates testifying to lack of fitness. There are jobs at strategic enterprises where employees are not eligible for the draft. And, of course, there are draft officials who take bribes.

But confronted with the prospect of fighting a war he views as immoral, Dmitry Neverovsky did not take any of these escape routes.

Instead, he insisted on his constitutional right to alternative civilian service - and was rewarded with a two-year prison term. Neverovsky's mother says he is one of 32 prisoners in a Kaluga jail cell built for eight. In January, Neverovsky spent 15 days in a punishment cell - where there was no heat, no water and no bed - ostensibly because he forgot to put his hands behind his back one day during roll call.

This week, the Kaluga Regional Court overturned the lower court's ruling on a technicality and sent the case back to the local level to be retried. Curiously, the court did not release Neverovsky from jail.

Neverovsky's supporters criticized the decision as yet another example of the judicial system's reluctance to defend the Constitution in the face of pressure from the military, which is eager to fill its ranks as war rages on in Chechnya.

"When I asked for alternative civilian service, I was certain I wasn't breaking the law," Neverovsky, 26, told the court Tuesday.

But although the right is guaranteed under Article 59 of the Constitution, parliament has failed to pass a law setting up an alternative service option.

In a May 1996 decision, the Constitutional Court ruled that the right to alternative service "should be ensured regardless of whether the corresponding federal law has been passed or not." But that hasn't mattered to draft boards and judges.

Nikolai Khramov, who heads the Moscow-based Anti-Militarist Radical Association and participated in Neverovsky's defense, said hundreds of civil suits by draftees demanding alternative service are denied each year. But he said he knows of only a dozen cases when criminal charges were brought against those draftees. Only a handful have been sent to prison; in the cases Khramov knows of, the convictions were overturned by higher courts.

Neverovsky's supporters say the authorities decided to make an example out of him because of his mother's political activism. Tatyana Kotlyar has campaigned actively for the right to alternative service from her seat in the city council of Obninsk, a town of about 110,000 in the Kaluga region. At the time when the charges were brought against her son, Kotlyar was running for the State Duma.

Kotlyar, who along with Khramov and lawyer David Slitinsky represented Neverovsky in court Tuesday, said the courts are biased against her son because his anti-military convictions are political, not religious. Neverovsky, a computer programmer, acknowledged he is not "a complete pacificist."

"I am against the army fulfilling police functions. I am against using the army against civilians," the slim, bearded Neverovsky said from the courtroom cage. "I recognize violence, but only in self-defense."

Kotlyar emphasized that Neverovsky's anti-military convictions were not simply "thought up for the court hearing."

In 1990, when Neverovsky was nearing draft age, the local draft board asked him to fill out a questionnaire. In response to a question about which division of the army he would like to serve in, Neverovsky replied that he didn't want to serve at all. "That was 10 years ago. Maybe today people often say that, but then it was unheard of," Kotlyar said in an interview.

Since then, she said, Neverovsky has acted consistently in accordance with his convictions. As a student at the Obninsk Institute of Atomic Energy, he was enrolled in the institute's military department but dropped out in 1995 in protest over the first war in Chechnya. Had he completed the course, he would have become part of the military's reserve corps, who are rarely called up for duty on the front lines.

When in 1997 Neverovsky got a draft notice, he sued the draft board for his right to alternative service. When the court failed to rule in his favor last summer, he and Kotlyar saw nothing alarming, as the local prosecutor had never pressed criminal charges against draftees who lost such cases.

"It was not his goal in life to defend the rights of objectors by sitting in jail, but that's how it turned out," Kotlyar said.

But in his Nov. 25 ruling, Obninsk City Court Judge Yakov Makarovsky said he was not convinced that Neverovsky's convictions were deep enough to excuse him from military service.

"Neverovsky's references to his convictions are unsubstantiated and only express his desire not to serve in the army and waste time on it," the judge wrote in his decision.

In perhaps another sign of the gravity with which the authorities view those convictions, Kotlyar said prison officials "conveniently forgot" about Neverovsky's request to vote in the Dec. 19 Duma elections. When she complained to the election commission that her son was denied the right to vote, she was told that according to records, he had voted. Kotlyar maintains that someone must have voted for him.

At Tuesday's hearing, the Kaluga court did not rule on the issues in Neverovsky's case. Instead, they sent the case back to Obninsk for a new hearing, saying Neverovsky had been denied proper representation. At the November trial Neverovsky had named several people for his defense team, but only one of them, his mother, was allowed by the court.

Oddly, the Kaluga court declined to let Neverovsky out of jail until his new trial. Before his first trial in Obninsk, he had not been required to await trial in detention and was only put in jail afterward to begin serving his sentence.

Khramov said the court had simply avoided taking a stand.

"It's obvious that they didn't want to acquit him for political reasons. On the other hand they couldn't just leave such an outrageous decision in force," he said afterward.

Georgy Bukovsky, the head of the three-judge collegium at Tuesday's session, questioned Kotlyar and Khramov extensively about their lack of legal education, even though the law allows people without such degrees to represent defendants in court.

When Bukovsky announced the decision to send the case back to Obninsk, Kotlyar asked whether her son would be let out of jail until the new trial. Bukovsky brusquely answered: "Ask a real lawyer. He'll explain everything."