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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Organizers Tout Army Deserter Plan

An innovative month-long scheme to encourage army deserters to turn themselves in was hailed as a success Wednesday after its first week of operation.

Sergei Bedin, an official with the Moscow Military Prosecutor's office, which is organizing the scheme together with soldier-advocacy group the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, said 24 deserters have already had their cases handed over to prosecutors.

"None of them has been put under arrest. And one was cleared completely, because we already found that his reasons for leaving the army without sanction were justified," he said. The cases of the remaining 59 deserters are still being processed.

There are no official figures for the number of deserters on the run from Russia's armed forces. But according to the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, up to 40,000 soldiers deserted the army last year, in many cases because of hazing and tough living conditions. "Even now, as we speak, maybe 20 or 30 soldiers left their units," said Valentina Melnikova, the committee's spokeswoman.

Under the Russian Criminal Code, servicemen who failed to return to their unit after a month of absence can face up to five years in prison. Desertion from the army does not have a statute of limitation, so a deserter can be prosecuted even if years have passed since he fled the army.

The current scheme does not offer an immediate amnesty to deserters.

However, if a deserter shows up at the committee's office in downtown Moscow, prosecutors have pledged to take this into account when considering whether to press charges.

In addition, experienced volunteers at the Soldiers' Mothers Committee examine each case to look for extenuating circumstances: a deserter cannot be convicted if he can prove he had a good reason for leaving his unit.

Sergei Zenin, also an official with the Military Prosecutor's Office, said that for the duration of the scheme police have been asked to release any deserters they pick up during routine document checks.

"We already helped one guy, whose mother called and said that he was detained by the police on the way to the committee. So we had to call the police precinct where he was held and ask them to release him, which they did," Zenin said.

Valentina Melnikova, spokeswoman for the committee said the scheme was so far running smoothly, and they planned to take their campaign for soldier's rights even further.

"On March 1, we submitted [to parliament] the draft of a law granting amnesty to deserters, because we believe that this would improve the situation dramatically," she said.

Despite the apparent success of the scheme, the Military Prosecutor's Office has no plans to make it a permanent fixture. When the March 24 deadline expires, the rules on processing deserters will be toughened once again, said Zenin.