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Under international human rights law, Russia is obliged to investigate any abuses that reach the level of severity of degrading treatment or worse.243 Many acts of initiation that do not reach that threshold do constitute violations of the Russian armed forces’ disciplinary code, and should therefore be investigated and punished under Russian law. However, Human Rights Watch found that disciplinary and criminal investigation and punishment of initiation abuse are rare, and occurs primarily with respect to very serious abuses that led to permanent injury or death. However, even such cases are often not investigated properly.

Accountability efforts for dedovshchina abuses must target not just the immediate offenders, the dedy, but also their superiors, the sergeants and officers. As this chapter argues, the vast majority of officers in the armed forces knowingly ignore dedovshchina, and have allowed generation after generation of conscripts to continue the cycle of violence. Thus, a significant shift in the culture of the officers’ corps is required. We believe this cultural change can only be achieved by holding officers accountable for failing to be vigilant to evidence of initiation abuses, failing to observe prevention mechanisms, and failure to take steps when evidence of abuse arises.

Investigation of Abusive Practices

Considering that in most units, officers close their eyes to evidence of dedovshchina and that conscripts, bound by the rule of silence, are unwilling to file complaints or tell the truth when asked, it is unsurprising that few incidents are investigated and few perpetrators punished. Human Rights Watch has found, however, that even when conscripts complain about their treatment—this typically happens after running away from their unit and visiting a soldiers’ rights group—military officials were wholly uninterested in investigating.

Human Rights Watch found that when abused runaway conscripts returned to their units, commanders often derided them for running away or launched straight into the practicalities of a return to the unit or hospitalization, while failing to establish the reasons for their flight and taking steps to remedy the situation. A Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed this when she visited Alexander D.’s military base in Mga and confronted his unit commander with the story of his abuses.244 In another case, Alexander Sukhanov’s mother informed the commander of his unit that he had an abuse problem in the unit. The commander answered that everything was fine in the unit and suggested she should let her son “…rest today, and bring him to the unit tomorrow.”245

In several cases, we found that commanders, perhaps eager to keep their record clean, made deals with runaway conscripts: if the conscript agrees not file a complaint against the abuses with the procuracy, the commander helps the conscript transfer to a different unit or get a discharge through a military hospital. Alexander Sukhanov’s mother, for example, told Human Rights Watch that after her son ran away with burn marks on his back, “[the commander] requested me personally: ‘Let’s not bring this case to the procuracy. Let’s put him in the hospital. We will not interfere and we will discharge him [from the army].’” The commander then warned Sukhanov to agree to the deal, saying Sukhanov had committed criminal offenses by running away three times and might face prosecution if he went to the procuracy. Sukhanov’s mother told Human Rights Watch that: “At that moment, we just wanted everything to end as soon as possible. We were in such a state for a full month…” They agreed to the deal and the commander kept his word: he gave Sukhanov leave and referred him to the military hospital. Sukhanov was discharged shortly after.246

In a similar case, Ilia R.’s mother told Human Rights Watch that after she took her son away from his unit with blisters from frostbite that he had sustained as a result of dedovshchina, two officers from the unit made numerous calls to her all night offering to transfer her son to a different unit closer to home. The next morning, the commander of that unit visited Ilia R. at her home. He said that his unit was “very good…that Ilya will like it.” He reminded Ilia R’s mother that her son could have problems because he ran away from his unit and finally suggested: “Let’s do it in such a way that it is good for you and for us.” Ilia R.’s mother inspected the unit and agreed to the transfer. Her son served the remainder of his two years at the unit and did not complain of further abuses. After her son’s transfer, Ilia R.’s mother sent a complaint to the procuracy nonetheless but she never had her son’s wound examined medically and the complaint apparently did not lead to any action by the procuracy.247

The Disciplinary Code

According to the Disciplinary Code of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, military discipline is “the strict and exact observance by all military servicemen of the order and rules, established in laws, military codes and orders of commanders...”248 Military discipline is achieved by, among others, “maintenance in the military unit of the internal order...” and by “respect for the personal integrity of military servicemen and constant care for them.”249 To promote military discipline, the Code allows for both rewarding of exemplary behavior and punishment of violations of discipline. Forms of rewarding range from removal of earlier disciplinary punishment or a formal expression of gratitude to promotion.250 Disciplinary punishment ranges from a formal warning to ten days in detention.251

The Code provides certain procedural guarantees to soldiers subject to punitive disciplinary proceedings.252 The soldier’s commander must conduct an investigation before imposing disciplinary punishment. During this investigation, the commander must, among other things, establish what occurred, and when and how, who the guilty parties are, and whether there are any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.253 The code stipulates that all circumstances must be weighed in determining the severity of the punishment.254 The code also provides soldiers subject to disciplinary punishment the right to appeal.255 If, in the course of his investigation, the commander discovers evidence of a criminal offense, he is obliged to inform the military procuracy.256

Disciplinary Punishment for Dedy

Various forms of punishment are available for dedy who violate military discipline: a warning, a strict warning, stripping them of leave, detention for up to ten days, up to five additional assignments, and stripping them of the medal of excellence, if they have received one.257 Dedy who have achieved the rank of sergeant or starshina can also be lowered in rank, position, or both.258 Commanders of squads, themselves dedy, have the right to give warnings and strict warnings, strip of leave, or assign one additional assignment.259 The deputy platoon commander, the starshina of a company, and the platoon commander—the former two are conscripts, the latter is an officer—can each assign one additional assignment respectively.260 The commander of the company, an officer, can order the arrest of a soldier for up to three days.261

In our research, we found few examples of disciplinary punishment of dedy for hazing.262 Conscripts who served in units where dedovshchina was largely absent said that bruises led to investigations by commanders, and to punishment of the perpetrators. However, almost none of the conscripts who served in units where dedovshchina was prevalent mentioned any disciplinary investigations into bruises or other clear signs of abuse. The case of Alexander D. is a good example: While he was still serving, no one conducted any investigation into the initiation abuses that took place in the unit, including the incident when Alexander D. was hit over the head with a fire extinguisher. But the unit commander showed no inclination of conducting any investigation even when Alexander D. visited the unit after military doctors had ruled him unfit to serve. In addition, a representative of the Soldiers’ Mothers of the St. Petersburg specifically told the commander about the abuses he had suffered in the unit, and gave him the names of the primary perpetrators. The case of Alexander Sukhanov is another typical example: although he had clear burn marks on his back as proof of mistreatment, no military officials ever questioned him about the treatment and his tormentors faced neither disciplinary punishment nor criminal prosecution.

Disciplinary Punishment for Officers

Officers are usually not directly involved in initiation abuses against first-year conscripts.263 They are, however, responsible for order and discipline in the units that are subordinate to them, and can thus face disciplinary punishment for failure to prevent violations of order and discipline. Indeed, the Disciplinary Code explicitly requires that commanders of all levels maintain a high level of vigilance for such violations. For example, commanders must “systematically analyze the condition of military discipline and the moral and psychological situation of subordinate military servicemen…” and must be “close to his subordinates, know their needs and wishes, seek to satisfy them, not tolerate rudeness and degradation of the integrity of the subordinates.”264 The types of disciplinary punishment that can be applied to junior officers range from formal warnings to demotion to early retirement.265

The scale on which officers fail to intervene to stop dedovshchina abuses strongly suggests that they fear no sanction for their inaction. Human Rights Watch was unable to find any information on cases when officers faced disciplinary punishment for failing to stop dedovshchina in their ranks.

Criminal Prosecution of Dedy

Under Russian law, unit commanders are responsible for the initial inquiry into complaints. They must also, ex officio, investigate any cases of abuse that come to their attention. They collect testimony from witnesses and any physical evidence that might be available. On the basis of these materials, commanders, jointly with the military procuracy, decide whether or not to open a criminal case. Once a criminal case has been opened, procuracy investigators are in charge of the criminal investigation.

This report has described the numerous obstacles that impede proper investigations. Officers routinely close their eyes to abusive practices and the victims of such practices generally do not file complaints. Even when a conscript flees his unit, the commander rarely conducts a thorough investigation into the reasons for his decision to run away. Thus, the vast majority of incidents never makes the first hurdle—they never come to the attention of the relevant officials.

When victims do lodge complaints or incidents are so serious that the commander or military procuracy feel obliged to investigate it, a second hurdle emerges. The commander, who is responsible for the initial fact gathering, faces a conflict of interest: official documentation of abusive practices in his unit reflect poorly on him, and may hamper his professional advancement. Commanders are therefore often less than eager to thoroughly investigate these incidents, and tend to deny or downplay them. Indeed, soldiers’ rights’ groups have told Human Rights Watch that in response to numerous complaints of confirmed dedovschina abuses lodged by them, the military procuracy sends letters with a standard formula: “the allegations were not confirmed by the facts.”

For example, on November 8, 2001, the soldiers’ rights group Right of the Mother requested in a letter to the military procuracy in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia that it conduct an investigation into maltreatment of Aleksei L. In an appended complaint, Aleksei L. described his treatment as follows:

Sergeant P. forced me to bring him money, [and] cigarettes, and if I failed he put two overcoats on me and a bullet proof vest, and beat and kicked me… This happened in the storage room or bathrooms. They [the dedy] also hit me over the head with a stool. Every Tuesday we had a bodily examination when we were checked for bruises but they beat us so that no signs would be left. They forced us to learn the dembel’s fairytale, and to tell it to the sergeants at night. If we did not, they made us to push-ups at night in the corridor for hours on end.266

Aleksei L. also described abuses he suffered at the hands of an officer: “Major B. amused himself as follows: He put his car in a puddle and forced us to crawl under it…”267 Several months later, the deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs troops of the southern federal district responded to Right of the Mother saying that Aleksei L. allegations had been verified and that “unlawful manifestations with regard to private A.L. were not confirmed.”268

Even when a commander does try to conduct a meaningful inquiry—or when the facts simply cannot be denied or downplayed—and a criminal case is opened, the investigation faces major obstacles. Most importantly, in most cases, all witnesses to the incident remain at the military base, together with the dedy, and no witness protection program is in place to protect them. Thus, the dedy are able to enforce the rule of silence and seriously undermine the criminal investigation. In many cases, the witnesses are first-year conscripts and themselves victims of dedovshchina abuses.

The following case is illustrative. Conscripts Vladimir T. and Igor Sh. served at military unit 5594 in Stavropol, southern Russia, where dedovshchina was apparently rife. Vladimir T.’s mother told Human Rights Watch, for example, that dedy had beaten her son on the head with stools, on his legs with bed posts, and with fists wrapped in wet towels. At night, he told her, dedy forced them to climb up seven flights of stairs while kneeling and beat those who failed.269 In August 2002, conscript Igor Sh. fled the unit and filed a complaint with the military procuracy regarding the treatment he and his peers faced at the base. In response, the military procuracy sent an investigator to the base to conduct an inquiry. Vladimir T., who was still at the base at the time, later told his mother that prior to the arrival of the investigator, one of the dedy had called all conscripts together and threatened them with unspecified repercussions should they cooperate with the inquiry.270 The criminal investigation never progressed.

Thus, the odds of any incident of abuse to be exhaustively investigated and prosecuted are very low. However, there are some precedents of successful investigations and convictions, which indicate that such prosecutions are possible. According to Russia’s main military procurator, in the first half of 2003, the number of crimes related to dedovshchina “went up by 500 to almost 3,000.”271

Criminal Prosecution of Officers

When officers know or ought to know that serious initiation abuses are happening in the units subordinate to them but fail to take steps to end them, they themselves may become criminally liable for the abuses. This may particularly be true in cases where a conscript has unsuccessfully complained to the commander but the abuses continue, or in cases when a particular unit is well-known as rife with initiation abuse but commanders fail to take steps. According to Russia’s main military procurator, his agency is investigating cases “against the commanders who tried to conceal these crimes, thus depriving the soldiers of the right for a secure service in the Army.”272 He did not specify, however, what kind of crimes the commanders sought to conceal. Human Rights Watch did not come across any criminal investigations against officers for failing to take steps against dedovschina abuses.

[243] This obligation is contained both in the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 3 in conjunction with 1) and the Convention Against Torture  and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Article 12, 13, and 16(1)). See also above, Initiation Practices and Human Rights.

[244] See above, p. 27.

[245] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Sukhanov and his mother.

[246] Ibid.

[247] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Ilia R.

[248] Article 1 of the Disciplinary Code.

[249] Article 4.

[250] Article 19.

[251] Article 51.

[252] Article 85.

[253] Article 86.

[254] Article 87.

[255] Article 88.

[256] Article 86.

[257] Article 51.

[258] Article 52.

[259] Article 54.

[260] Article 55, 56 and 57.

[261] Article 58.

[262] While the victims of abuse generally do not know whether their abusers have been subjected to disciplinary punishment—under the Disciplinary Code, disciplinary measures taken with respect to a soldier may not be announced to his subordinates—they are in a position to know whether their commanders conducted an investigation into the alleged abuses. Hence, if their commanders never questioned them about the abuses, they can safely conclude that their tormentors were not given disciplinary punishment.

[263] Human Rights Watch has documented a number of cases of abuse of conscripts by officers but these were not related to dedovshchina and therefore fall outside the scope of this report. However, according to soldiers’ rights groups, abuse of conscripts by officers is a growing problem.

[264] Article 5 stipulates that commanders and their deputies responsible for education are responsible for discipline in the unit and must “constantly maintain high military discipline, demand from subordinates observance, and reward the worthy, and strictly but justly punish negligent.” According to article 6, they must “solidify friendship between military servicemen of different nationalities,” “know the level of military discipline,” “immediately rectify violations found and decisively end any actions that can cause damage to the military readiness of the unit (podrazdelenia)… “A commander must be close to his subordinates, must know their needs and wishes…”

[265] Article 69.

[266] A copy of the complaint, dated October 17, 2001, is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[267] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Aleksei L.

[268] Letter from the deputy commander of the interior forces of the southern federal district to Right of the Mother, dated December 6, 2001. A copy of the letter is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[269] Vladimir T’s mother took her son away from his unit after the mother of a conscript who fled the base called her and told her that her son had plans to throw himself out of a barrack window to escape the abuses.

Vladimir T.’s mother told Human Rights Watch that her son had also indicated in his letters that he faced abuse. She said that prior to his service she and her son had agreed that he would draw little trees on the margins of his letters if he was being beaten. She said: “At first, before the oath, there were very few. But then there were more and more of then.” Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Vladimir T., October 4, 2002, Volgograd. Vladimir T. served in interior forces unit 5594 in Stavropol. Vladimir T. is a pseudonym.

Vladimir T.’s mother provided Human Rights Watch with a forensic medical report obtained after he left his base. The report describes injuries that are consistent with his description of the abuses he faced. It states that “T. V.I. has bruises on his head, rump, and extremities, which occurred as a result of impact with dull objects, possible hands, feet and the like, about one to one and a half weeks before the examination.” A copy of the examination report is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[270] Ibid.

[271] See: Sergei Ovsiyenko, Alexander Shashkov, “Russian Prosecutor Says Cases of Hazing in Army up 30%,” Itar-Tass news agency, September 3, 2003; Dmitrii Iurov, “Prestupniku mesto v tiurme (Criminals should be in jail),” Krasnaia Zvezda (The Red Star), September 5, 2003; and “V rossiiskoi armii uvelichilos chislo neustavnykh otnoshenii,”, September 3, 2003.

[272] Ibid.

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