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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers Told Not toTurn to Activists

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said commanders are to blame for most of the desertions in the military, but urged servicemen to take complaints of abuse to the authorities instead of the nongovernmental rights group the Soldiers' Mothers Committee.

In comments broadcast Monday on NTV, Ivanov said conscripts who feel they are victims of abuse should appeal to military prosecutors if their commanders fail to deal with their complaints.

Ivanov spoke a day after a large group of conscripts abandoned their unit and traveled to the Soldiers' Mothers office in St. Petersburg claiming that senior officers beat and tortured them. Using language tinged with sarcasm and disdain, Ivanov criticized the organization.

"There is one thing that makes me, personally, apprehensive: these flights [by deserters], sometimes of many hundreds of kilometers, to the so-called Soldiers' Mothers Committee," Ivanov said.

He also said he would like to know who funds the Soldiers' Mothers offices.

Ella Polyakova, co-head of Soldiers' Mothers St. Petersburg, said Sunday that 24 soldiers left their Railroad Troops unit outside the city Saturday after a conflict that began on New Year's Eve, when a captain threw stools at them, fired a gun and threatened them with a knife. They said a major later beat and tortured them, locking four in a small room for 24 hours, she said.

Railroad Troops spokesman Colonel Alexander Bychkov has accused the soldiers of leaving the unit to avoid punishment after committing "acts of hooliganism" against the unit's chief of staff.