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Russia: Conviction Of Army Deserter Degrades Surrender Program

Moscow, 16 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists say the sentencing of a Russian Army deserter could stem a growing flow of deserters surrendering to authorities in hope that they will fall under amnesty.

The Moscow garrison court recently convicted and sentenced private Aleksei Zikeyev to 18 months of service in a disciplinary battalion for repeated desertion from military service. Such units hardly differ from full-scale jails, and soldiers still have to complete their regular service after serving their time at such a battalion.

Zikeyev's lawyer, Yuri Gutin, said last week (June 11) that no deserters will "ever want to come back" and surrender if Zikeyev's conviction is not reversed.

The present situation arose following an announcement earlier this year from the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office that it will grant partial amnesty to those deserters who will surrender voluntarily. Some 4,500 men have reported since then to special centers of voluntary surrender set up by the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, including more than 1,400 of those who fled their units two or more years ago.

In all, some 14,000 have deserted Russian military units since 1991 and are sought by authorities. Some, however, refuse to turn themselves in, fearing that they will be sent back to their old units to suffer cruel "hazing." Hazing is the often-brutal practice of informal punishment, and it is one of the prime sources of mortality among Russian soldiers. Last year saw more than 1,000 soldiers die in Russia, which is more than in 1996 when the military was still fighting a bloody war with Chechen separatists.

Only three percent of the deserters, who have surrendered since March, have had to stand trial, according to the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office. That agency says that only those guilty of serious crimes have been convicted. The rest were either discharged, or will resume their service. However, the Zikeyev case has cut across this trend, and appears to be having a deterrent effect. According to Zikeyev's lawyer Gutin, more than a dozen deserters fled from the Moscow garrison center of voluntary surrender immediately after the verdict was issued last month.

Gutin says he believes that this single conviction may foil the entire program by the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office to bring uniformed runaways back. He notes, however, that the situation may change for the better if President Boris Yeltsin signs the amnesty bill passed by the State Duma Wednesday. The bill grants amnesty to all deserters who have committed crimes that could be punished with imprisonment for two years or less.

Military prosecutors say less than 50 young men had to stand trial after voluntarily turning themselves in from March to June of this year. Spokesman for the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office Sergei Ushakov said last week that Zikeyev's conviction will not scare away even those who did commit serious offenses to say less of simple deserters. He said they prefer to surrender fed up with years of living in constant fear that they will get caught one day.

As to Zikeyev himself, he was unable to stand beating and moral hazing by older soldiers, and he refused to return to his Moscow-based unit after a vacation last August. He eventually returned to his unit, but fled again after officers told him that he was facing a possible conviction and three years in a disciplinary unit. He returned again after hearing about the decision by the Military Prosecutor's Office to grant partial amnesty to deserters.

He has appealed the May 14 verdict of the Moscow garrison court and had his case transferred to the Moscow Military District's Court. This court of higher instance ruled on June 9 to send the case back to the Moscow Garrison's Military Prosecutor's Office for a more thorough investigation.

An official in that office, who requested anonymity, said last week that the case may now be dropped because Zikeyev's lawyer Gutin has produced evidence proving that his client should not have been recruited for military service at all. That's because he weighed only 54 kilograms -- below the required minimum -- when conscripted in June 1996.