Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Russian public decries brutal treatment of conscripts

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Russian military was facing growing public anger on Thursday when, amid a flurry of high-profile cases of abuse, a senior officer was convicted of hiring his troops out as slave labor and pocketing the fees.

A Russian military court fined Vladimir Kontonistov 60,000 rubles and barred him from command for three years. Prosecutors said the sentence was too lenient and said they would appeal.

Kontonistov was deputy commander of a division of the Strategic Rocket Forces in Siberia's Novosibirsk region, a unit that services Russia's nuclear missiles. He hired out his troops to local businesses, according to Interfax news agency, a practice believed to be commonplace in an army in which poorly paid officers say they have to find ways to supplement meager incomes.

The case came amid growing public disgust over the fate of Andrei Sychev, a 19-year-old conscript at a tank academy in the eastern town of Chelyabinsk. He was reportedly beaten and tortured by his superior officers during a drunken rage on New Year's Eve, during which he was tied to a chair and repeatedly hit. He did not receive medical treatment for several days, by which time gangrene had set in, forcing doctors to amputate his legs, genitals and fingers. He was taken off a ventilator only on Monday.

The defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin and tipped as a possible successor, was criticized for playing down the incident at first. An outcry by civil society groups led to calls for Ivanov's resignation, and protests outside the defense ministry on Saturday.

This forced Ivanov to act, sacking the head of the academy and pushing through an investigation that has led to criminal cases being opened against 12 servicemen.

Putin called the incident "horrible" and last week ordered Ivanov to conduct a wide review of the "educational work" of the military. He also gave the conscript's family a flat. The local administration has awarded the family US$17,800 in aid and Moscow's media now carry the details of a bank account to which the public can send contributions. State doctors have said they can operate on him to restore his genitals.

The cases have drawn attention once again to the wretched conditions suffered by military conscripts. All Russian men are supposed to serve two years in the military between the ages of 18 and 28. Reports of brutal initiation rites and bullying are common.

The media reported 10 serious incidents in the past 24 hours. In one case, Yevgeny Koblov, a soldier serving in Khabarovsk in the Russian far east, was heavily beaten in May last year, but lay in a basement for 24 days before receiving medical treatment. He may also have to have his legs amputated, as may another conscript from Ekaterinberg who reportedly has similarly serious leg injuries.

In an attempt to confront one of the most unpopular issues in Russian society, the Kremlin has pledged to reduce the length of service to 12 months.

While few are now sent to serve in the violent North Caucasus, it is estimated that hundreds die each year through accidents or through the ritualistic bullying inflicted by superior officers. Forty-six soldiers died of non-combat injuries in one week alone last year.

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