. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Offers $1M to Soldiers

A foundation set up by Boris Berezovsky announced Tuesday that it will donate $1 million a year to a legal aid program for army conscripts.

The money is to aid thousands of soldiers who are accused of crimes or who are victims, and is to be released starting September through the Russian branch of the U.S.-based International Foundation for Civil Liberties.

The former Kremlin power broker established the foundation in December in what he said was a bid to support Russia's weak civil society.

"To really defeat lawlessness in the army is impossible until we have an all-volunteer army," Berezovsky was quoted as saying in a statement released Tuesday. "The fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens performing their military duty are left to fend for themselves against the army's lawlessness and hazing is no credit to us. It is our duty to defend our defenders," he said.

Information about soldiers in need of legal assistance is to be collected by regional Soldiers' Mothers Committees, which defend conscripts' rights and help parents locate missing soldiers. Distribution of funds is to be supervised by an independent public committee consisting of Moscow lawyers and journalists.

"Army servicemen today are the most vulnerable and deprived group in Russia," foundation spokesman Pavel Arsentyev said at a press conference Tuesday. "We hope the program will cover several thousand clients."

Soldiers serving in Chechnya will be among those covered by the program, Arsentyev said. The foundation plans either to send lawyers to the rebellious republic or hire local civilian lawyers.

Prominent lawyer and funds-distribution committee member Genri Reznik said Tuesday that the lawyers the state provides for the soldiers are too "sluggish" in defending clients for the state-given fee of 75 rubles ($2.60) a day. Berezovsky's program is to offer lawyers a flat $200 fee per case, Reznik said.

The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees spokeswoman Valentina Melnikova welcomed the initiative.

"Military courts are very closed establishments where soldiers appear totally unprotected," said Melnikova, who is also a member of the foundation's funds-distribution committee. "The program will add influence to our committees countrywide and may help to uncover military courts' statistics."

She said recent court statistics remain unavailable, with the latest available being for 1998. That year, 2,500 servicemen were convicted by military courts, with deserters making up 60 percent.

Rampant hazing is seen as the main reason for desertion, with ethnic conflicts as a contributing factor.

Seventy-three soldiers fled their barracks in Samara last week, reportedly due to a dispute between local servicemen and troops from Dagestan. All but two deserters were detained by Monday, according to Interfax.

"Do you think these boys were criminals?" Melnikova said. "However, they all will face criminal conviction."

In May, Berezovsky, who is in self-imposed exile in France, sponsored another foundation project, donating $1 million to provide imprisoned teenagers with legal aid. The project is under way in seven Russian regions.

The foundation has made grants of $3,000 to $15,000 to 161 regional NGOs across the country.