KULOB, Tajikistan -- Authorities in Tajikistan have put pressure on hundreds of university students to enlist in the national army and even threatened them with expulsion if they refuse, students and officials claim.
It comes as the military's spring call-up is under way in the Central Asian country, where many young men try to avoid going into the army, which is notorious for widespread hazing and poor conditions for soldiers.
The Tajik government insists that students have joined the military on their own accord. State TV frequently shows male students publicly announcing their "own decision to voluntarily" join the army and "serve" the nation.
TV ads show young men in crisp white shirts and black trousers registering for the army after each giving a brief speech in what seems to be a university town hall.
Education officials say summer exams have moved forward for the hundreds of students who are leaving for the one year of service. In the southern city of Bokhtar, 120 students have reportedly joined the military, local officials said on May 6.
But several students privately told RFE/RL they are being "forcibly" sent to the army. They said university administrations give each student a copy of a written request for army service and demand that they sign it.
"Initially, we were told that signing that letter was our choice, but then we were forced to sign," one student said on condition of anonymity. "I refused to comply and left the classroom," he added. "Now, I don't know what will happen to me."
The Tajik human rights group Office of Civil Liberties says it has received numerous complaints from students at Khujand State University who claimed they were told to join the army or be expelled. "This is the work of certain representatives in law enforcement agencies and the regional military call-up center," said Dilrabo Samadova, the head of the group.
In most Tajik universities, students study for five years to get a diploma. Authorities are said to be primarily targeting students from the fourth and fifth years who are expected to graduate soon.
Tajikistan conducts two rounds of army call-ups -- in the spring and fall -- to fill the ranks of its national army with conscripts aged between 18 and 27. By law, students and university graduates are largely exempt from conscription.
Universities Under Pressure
Sources in the southern province of Khatlon told RFE/RL the local government had "secretly" ordered the region's six major universities to draft about 900 students into military service during the current call-up.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a local official said the matter was discussed and approved at a provincial government meeting on May 4.
According to the official, Khatlon's largest university in Bokhtar was ordered to conscript 300 students, while universities in towns of Danghara and Kulob were told to conscript 250 and 150 students, respectively. The Levakand University must find 89 volunteers for the army, while the Khatlon Medical School and the Kulob School of Technology were ordered to bring 60 and 65 volunteers, respectively, the official said.
Several university officials in Khatlon confirmed getting such instruction and being under pressure to deliver. They admitted that universities had to compel the students to join the army because there were not enough "volunteers."
"We have no time left to do our own work as we try to fulfill this instruction, with one leg at the call-up center and the other at the university," one official told RFE/RL on May 6 on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, officials in Dushanbe rejected the allegations of students being forcibly conscripted. The Education Ministry said it hadn't received any such complaints from students.
Many conscript-age Tajiks leave the country during the call-up season to avoid enlistment. They usually go to Russia as migrant laborers.
Soldiers and parents say widespread hazing -- or bullying of new conscripts by their peers -- is one of the major reasons many are fearful of military service.
The story of 22-year-old law-school graduate Shahbol Mirzoev shocked the nation in 2014 when he was left paralyzed from the neck down after being violently beaten by an army paramedic, who also denied him medical care.
Mirzoev had voluntarily joined the military after graduating from Tajik National University.
Mirzoev's parents sold their house and belongings to take him to Russia for medical treatment for his injuries but he never recovered and died seven years later.
Tajik authorities say they have since taken measures to tackle bullying in the army by installing security cameras in barracks and by punishing perpetrators.