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Hundreds of thousands of new recruits face grossly abusive treatment at the hands of senior conscripts throughout their first year of service in the Russian armed forces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 86-page report, “The Wrongs of Passage: Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of New Recruits in the Russian Armed Forces,” documents the serious human rights abuses involved in dedovshchina, or “rule of the grandfathers,” which results in the deaths of dozens of conscripts every year, and serious—and often permanent—damage to the physical and mental health of thousands others. Hundreds of conscripts commit or attempt suicide each year, and thousands run away from their units.

In the Russian army, older conscripts force new recruits to live in a year-long state of pointless servitude, punish them violently for any infractions of official or informal rules, and abuse them gratuitously - practices which clearly violate Russia’s military code of conduct. The officers’ corps and the Russian government have failed to take effective steps to stop these abuses.

“Human Rights Watch’s research shows that hazing practices are entirely preventable,” said Diederik Lohman, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division and the author of the report. “It’s time for the Russian government to put a stop to this appalling practice.”

The report is based on three years of research of the dedovshchina system in seven regions across Russia, including Cheliabinsk, Moscow, Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Volgograd, and interviews with more than one hundred conscripts, their parents, government officials, lawyers, experts from nongovernmental organizations, and former military servicemen. The conscripts served on more than 50 bases in more than 25 of Russia’s 89 provinces.

The hazing system is fuelled by an endless cycle of vengeance, Lohman said. After suffering horrific abuses in their first year of service, second-year conscripts avenge themselves by inflicting the same outrages on the next generation of recruits, and so on.

Throughout their first year, new recruits live under the constant threat of violence for failing to comply with second year conscripts’ arbitrary demands, ranging from polishing their boots to procuring food and alcohol. First year recruits spend much of their time complying with these demands, as any failure to do so routinely results in violent beatings or other physical punishment, usually carried out after officers have left the base.

The vast majority of army officers either choose to ignore evidence of the abuses, or to encourage them because they see dedovshchina as an effective means of maintaining discipline in their ranks. In many units the existing prevention mechanisms in the Russian armed forces have been reduced to empty formalities.

The fact that dedovshchina is rampant in some units and practically absent in others suggests that hazing abuses are preventable if officers exercise leadership to stop them. Some conscripts stated that the officers in units without dedovshchina sent a consistent and clear message to their troops that they would not tolerate abuses, maintained a certain closeness to their troops, meticulously implemented existing prevention mechanisms, and acted decisively on evidence of incipient abuse.

Despite years of public awareness about dedovshchina and its consequences, the government has failed to take the appropriate steps to combat it. Instead of taking a clear and public stance against the abuses, government officials have largely ignored the issue in numerous speeches about military reform. The government has yet to adopt a clear and comprehensive strategy to deal with the abuses and establish a meaningful accountability process.

“The government’s indifference toward hazing is startling,” said Lohman. “How can a country that is so concerned with its military strength ignore a practice that so clearly undermines it?”

Horror stories about dedovshchina motivate tens of thousands of Russian parents every year to try to keep their sons out of the armed forces. As the most affluent and educated families do so most successfully, the armed forces increasingly draw recruits from poorer segments of the population, and many new recruits suffer from malnutrition, ill-health, alcohol or drug addiction, or other social ills before their conscription. During their service, conscripts face physical and mental abuse and receive poor nourishment and medical care that lead to low morale.

Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to create a task force to design and implement a comprehensive strategy for combating dedovshchina abuses. It also called for the creation of a special ombudsman for military servicemen under Russia’s general ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin.

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