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Russian President Vladimir Putin often promises to reform his country's military, which is under-funded and badly disciplined. But perhaps the Russian military's worst problem is the abuse of conscripts. It's a big human rights issue, as NPR's Gregory Fiefer reports.
GREGORY FIEFER reporting:
Twenty-four-year-old private Alexander Astirov (ph) was serving near Moscow in April, 2005. His mother Tatiana says one night he startled three drunk soldiers who were attempting to steal vodka from the company commander's barracks room, so they began beating him.
Ms. TATIANA ASTIROV (Mother of Private Astirov): (Through translator) That's how he died, beaten to death, they dealt him five fatal blows. He was strangled, his thyroid was smashed. His pancreas and aorta were injured. His ribs were broken and lungs punctured. It was just brutal.
FIEFER: Astirov says the military doesn't want such cases to become public. She says prosecutors are adding to her trauma by protecting her son's attackers.
Ms. ASTIROV: (Through translator) I wouldn't wish what happened on anyone. I'd tell any mother now not to send her son into the army under any circumstance, because there's no guarantee he'd come back healthy, if he'd come back at all.
FIEFER: Russian men are required to sever a two-year draft and soldiers' rights groups say tens of thousands are hazed each year. They say only about 30 percent of cases come to light. Experts say because of poor funding and a lack of qualified officers, the army must rely on second year draftees to discipline first year conscripts. That system helps sustain a vicious circle of abuse.
Valentina Melnikova heads the Soldiers' Mothers committee, where many victims turn as a last resort. She says cruelty in the military stems from a traditional attitude that soldiers' lives are worthless, best used as cannon fodder.
Ms. VALENTINA MELNIKOVA (Soldiers' Mothers Committee): (Through translator) What kind of Russian Army do we have, it's a dead horse, the remains of the Soviet Army. It poisons the country, people in society. It consumes huge resources and ruins people.
FIEFER: Officers' use of conscripts for slave labor helps perpetuate old attitudes. 22-year-old Alexander Baoff (ph) was serving in the Volga River region of Saratov in August, 2004, when his unit commander order him to help him build his summer house. Baoff fell at the construction site, injuring his spine and paralyzing his legs. He remains hospitalized.
Under military law, unit commanders are the first to conduct investigations into wrongdoing. Baoff's commander reported that the injury took place at his barracks. The officer also said his soldiers were building his (unintelligible) voluntarily in their free time, and he intimidated witnesses.
The commander faces trial, but remains in charge of his unit. Baoff's father, Mikhail, says he refused to pay a $2000 bribe to keep his son out of the Army. He says he wanted to do the right thing.
Mr. MIKHAIL BAOFF: (Through translator) It's odd how the system works here in Russia, those who have money either pay to buy their sons out of the army, or to sign them up in a military academy. But those who don't have the money, it seems the military can just mistreat them any way it likes.
FIEFER: The government says of the staggering more than 1000 service men who died of non-combat causes last year, 16 died from hazing. But experts say the real number is much higher. Abuse drives many conscripts to suicide. The Defense Ministry says almost 300 military personnel killed themselves last year.
And Valentina Melnikova of the Soldiers Mother's Committee says many deaths from mistreatment are attributed to other causes.
Ms. MELNIKOVA: (Through translator) A soldier is sold into slavery, he disappears, families are informed, your son has gone absent without leave. Then a dead soldier is found and his commanders report, he abandoned his unit and got into a fight with a civilian.
FIEFER: Earlier this year, one hazing incident, which resulted in the amputations of a soldier's legs and genitals, became unusual for drawing national attention. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov initially dismissed the case, saying it wasn't serious. His response drew the first major criticism of his five-year tenure.
Ivanov defended himself against calls to step down by blaming the criticism on a wave of antimilitary sentiment. Addressing Parliament, he said conditions in the armed forces were actually better than many conscripts are used to at home.
Prime Minister SERGEI IVANOV (Russia): (Through translator) Some of those who join the service see toilets, toothbrushes and three meals a day for the first time in their lives.
FIEFER: Ivanov's defense worked. The case dropped out of the headlines. No significant firings have taken place. Ivanov says the government plans to reduce the draft to one year in 2008. He also says the armed forces will hire more volunteer soldiers. But experts say real reform would require a much more serious overhaul. Until then, they say, hazing in the military will continue unabated.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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