Human Rights Watch urged Russian authorities on Wednesday to take action against the vicious hazing that plagues the nation’s military, saying the abuse that kills dozens of conscripts every year and traumatizes thousands more can be prevented.
In an 86-page report, the U.S.-based group said first-year conscripts are subjected to pervasive humiliation, battery and harassment by their seniors, which drives hundreds to commit suicide and thousands of others to flee their military units.
“This is a very big human rights problem — one of the biggest that Russia has,” said Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Hazing practices involve making new conscripts perform endless tasks — buying alcohol, shining boots, making beds or obtaining money for senior soldiers. It also involves physical abuse, usually by drunken soldiers, such as beatings with stools or iron rods and sometimes even sexual harassment.
The Defense Ministry won’t comment until it has read the report, a spokesman said.
Alexei, a recently drafted conscript who declined to give his last name, ran away from the army after senior soldiers poured what appeared to be an acid-based liquid on his face after he refused to obtain about $275 for them.
“While I was asleep, they poured acid or something on my face, and you see what happened,” he told Associated Press Television News, his face covered with red spots.
“The next day, they left a note saying, ’If you don’t want the rest of your face burned, call your parents,”’ Alexei said.
Soldier Alexander Sukhanov said a sergeant sat on him in the middle of the night and extinguished cigarettes on his back.
“I felt something hot on my back. He burned me with a cigarette,” Human Rights Watch quoted him as saying. “I wanted to scream, but nobody could hear me — they buried me in the pillow.”
Video documents abuses
In a 1998 amateur video, obtained by APTN from the Sovershenno Sekretno production company, senior conscripts are shown violently beating a younger soldier, who offers no resistance and only grimaces in pain.
In another scene, younger conscripts stand lined up while an older soldier walks by and kicks and punches one after another in their stomachs. Again, the younger conscripts show no resistance, and only take deep breaths when their turn comes to receive the blow.
Valentina Melnikova, chairwoman of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, said such practices are rampant throughout Russia, even in elite regiments.
She said conscripts from the Kremlin regiment told her they were ordered to produce $170 every month or “pay for it” if they failed. Soldiers are paid the equivalent of about $3.40 per month, she said.
“Each soldier who undergoes military service one way or another feels these abuses — it can be beating, humiliation, harassment or extortion,” she said.
Cycle of vengeance
In the first half of this year, 25 soldiers died as a result of hazing by older conscripts and 12 others died from excess force used by their officers, according to Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Alexander Savenkov. During the same period, 109 committed suicide, 60 of them as a result of hazing, he said. Experts say, however, that the actual number of deaths is higher, since official statistics account only for cases that reach the courts.
Abused soldiers in turn resort to similar practices on younger conscripts in their second year of service, which creates a cycle of vengeance, Human Rights Watch said.
“They are denied adequate food, adequate medical care, they are regularly beaten — how effective can an army like that be?” Lohman said.
The report said hazing persists largely because of officers’ indifference. Badly paid and demoralized, they turn a blind eye to what is happening in their units. Sometimes they allow older conscripts to abuse younger ones to maintain discipline.
Officers should be made accountable for preventing hazing in their units, the report said.
Human Rights Watch also suggested creating a task force to put forward a strategy to fight hazing. It proposed appointing a deputy ombudsman under Russian human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin to investigate hazing incidents.
Melnikova suggested that hazing could be reduced by abolishing compulsory military service and moving to a professional army. In that case, she said, the state will have to pay soldiers and treat them as employees.
“A conscript soldier has no rights — no right to call or write home, no right to timely health care, no right to receive proper food. He has rights to nothing!” Melnikova said.