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Russia: Rights Group Criticizes Draft Practices

Russia's decaying conscript army is finding it increasingly difficult to fill its annual draft quotas. In a report released today, Human Rights Watch says that as a result, police each year arrest hundreds of civilians and send them off to military bases, often the very same day. Authorities say they are only trying to crack down on draft dodgers, but many detainees say their rights are violated, with legitimate exemptions and rights of appeal denied.

Moscow, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some are caught in metro stations and other public places. Others are arrested at their homes. One woke up with a hangover after a rowdy night to find himself staring at a military police officer. His apartment was ransacked and the all-important passport confiscated.

Life under the Soviet Union? No, this is the reality today for many Russian young men of conscription age. Accused of dodging the country's mandatory two-year draft, hundreds each year find themselves arrested by police and sent off to military bases, often the same day.

In a report released today, the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch says police often abuse their authority to serve draft notices by illegally arresting conscription-age men. In the process, legitimate exemptions are ignored, as are legal rights of appeal and even basic rights such as the ability to contact relatives.

Anna Neistat is director of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office. She told reporters that basic rights are routinely violated, not least because the legal procedure for serving draft notices has yet to be properly set out. "The results of the research carried out by Human Rights Watch show that the existing practice of detaining young men in Russia, the accelerated processing of their draft documents and the refusal of their right to appeal their draft decision significantly violates existing Russian legislation and internationally recognized human rights," Neistat said.

Around 400,000 young men between the ages of 18 and 27 are drafted each year to serve in one of the country's many branches of the armed forces. The military says approximately 30,000 avoid the draft each year.

Under Russian law, summonses must be physically handed to draftees; young men often try to avoid the draft by evading being served. Draftees can only be prosecuted after they have received a draft card.

Human Rights Watch says that while the practice of conscription itself is legal under international law, police often take part in illegal arrests instead of simply serving draft notices as required by law.

Once arrested, detainees are often sped through medical examinations. Medical and legal deferrals, including student exemptions, are often ignored, and young men are sent off to military bases without even as much as a phone call home.

Human Rights Watch reported one detainee as saying that instead of taking part in a medical examination, he was kept in a locked room while an official obtained signatures from various doctors saying he was fit to serve. One person signed for three others: a dentist, ophthalmologist, and surgeon.

The detainee was denied his right to appeal the draft, refused a request to inform his employer of what had happened to him, and sent off to a military base the same evening.

Such practices are part of an attempt to make up for declining numbers of draftees. The armed services say half of Russia's young men are disqualified for military service due to bad health. Many have problems with alcohol or drugs.

The well-off, on the other hand, often can avoid the draft through influence, bribery, and other means.

Potential draftees say they are desperate to avoid serving in an army that has all but fallen apart.

Aleksandr Petrov, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office, recently conducted a series of interviews with conscripted soldiers. He said the problem of detaining potential conscripts is just one of the military's problems. "The question of problems in conscription is really a kind of reflection of the problems in the army, in some cases pressing and in some downright catastrophic," Neistat said.

Conditions are abysmal: First-year draftees are routinely beaten and sometimes killed by officers and second-year "veterans." The dreaded practice of hazing is called "dedovshchina," derived from the word for elder.

Soldiers are also woefully underfed and lack proper medical attention.

Petrov said: "Our questions about whether there was fruit in a soldier's rations were often met with at minimum an ironic smile and sometimes heartfelt laughter. In answer to the question about what kind of meat is given them, similar kinds of commentary were given about the size and quality of pieces floating in porridge or soup."

Young men are also wary of serving in Chechnya, where poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers die daily from attacks by hardened rebels.

Desertions are common, as are suicides. The military puts the number of desertions at 2,500 to 3,000 each year.

The Soviet-era practice of conscription is widely unpopular. The government introduced a three-year alternative-service regime this year, but liberal politicians and human rights defenders criticize it as unfair and ineffective.

Despite massive resistance from the bulk of the military's top staff, the government says it wants to create a voluntary professional army from the current 1.2 million-strong armed forces. In November 2001, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced a large-scale transformation of the military that would phase out conscription by 2010.

Western military experts, however, say creating a voluntary army will require complicated and expensive reforms.

A leading proponent of military reform, liberal Union of Rightist Forces party leader Boris Nemtsov, said inaction on this issue would be disastrous for the armed forces.

In a recent interview with Ekho Moskvy Radio, Nemtsov said, "To do nothing, to preserve the bullying, the current draft procedure, and corruption linked to avoiding military service," will result in Russia having "no army by 2005-06."