Navy medic may face 10-year sentence for 'disobedience'

Plight of conscientious objectors highlighted by man who refused rifle training

A Royal Navy medic with ethical objections to the Afghanistan war could face up to 10 years in prison after refusing to undergo rifle training. The Navy will hold a preliminary court-martial hearing against Michael Lyons on Friday.

Campaigners see the court martial as the Navy's attempt to deter other service personnel opposing military duty on grounds of conscience, religion or freedom of thought.

The 24-year-old had applied for conscientious objector status when he was ordered to take firearms training last September before a tour of Afghanistan. Pending the outcome of his hearing, Lyons attended but asked not to participate. After several hours during which he was threatened with arrest, he was sent back to base. When his case was later dismissed, the Navy told him he would be court-martialled for "wilful disobedience".

When his application was heard last December, Lyons was the first person to appear before the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO) since 1996. His attempts to be discharged failed because the committee ruled his reasons were "political" rather than moral, a distinction campaigners say is flawed.

They argue that his case highlights the urgent need for conscientious objection to be more clearly enshrined in British law in the new Armed Forces Bill.

Lyons became disillusioned with the Afghanistan war after attending a training session where he was told that saving military lives would take priority over those of civilians. His view strengthened after revelations about high losses of civilian lives reported on the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

Lyons could face further charges if he speaks to the media. His wife, Lillian, told The IoS: "His case has been handled appallingly. If the judge rules against him he could face up to 10 years in military prison. The thought of him in there as a conscientious objector is terrifying. We've already had threats from people in Plymouth, mostly Marines, calling him a coward.

"I feel immensely proud of him. People call him a coward but, as a medic, he knows there are far easier ways to get discharged. He wants to make it easier for other people who feel like him. His chief called him a cancer because he was scared he would spread this message of peace and love to other people."

The preliminary hearing is to be held at Portsmouth Navy base, followed by a full hearing in May.

Since 2004, more than 30 people have contacted At Ease, an independent advice line, wanting to leave the Armed Forces for ethical or political reasons.

Gwyn Gwyntopher of At Ease said: "We've had a call from someone who was loading ammunition in Iraq and wanted to leave the Army because he had decided everything to do with the military was murder, yet he hadn't heard of conscientious objection. Such cases are common. It is rare for people in the armed forces to be informed what conscientious objection is."

Emma Sangster, co-ordinator of Forces Watch, which has supported Lyons, said: "The way Michael Lyons' case has been handled adds up to an act of intimidation, from dismissing his case as political rather than moral to pursuing him to court martial over an incident occurring while his case was pending. Of course, you can understand why the military couldn't let his case succeed because it would open the floodgates to more people wanting to register as objectors.

"By amending the Armed Forces Bill, Parliament can ensure the right to conscientious objection is mentioned when new recruits sign up, that information about it is readily available and those who apply are taken seriously."

The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on individual cases.

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