Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Activists Discuss Army Abuses

MTAlexeyeva, right, sitting next to Ella Pamfilova at the rights conference.
Human rights advocates on Wednesday welcomed Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's decision to publish details about all deaths in the Army, but said that his ministry remained one of the most closed and nontransparent, and accused the military of being reluctant to have a dialogue with civil society.

Ivanov said Tuesday that he had decided to "make all information about all military deaths accessible for the first time" by publishing monthly figures and accounts on the ministry's web site.

"Minister Ivanov must have suffered some catharsis after years of saying that things were totally fine in the Army," said veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

"This gives us hope that our efforts have not been wasted but have been understood by the military," Alexeyeva said Wednesday.

Along with at a dozen other human rights activists, Alexeyeva participated in a two-day conference dedicated to the legal status of servicemen and civilian control over the military.

"We will see how it goes," Alexeyeva said. "If it does not go beyond words, I will take my words back."

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, said that the decision to publish information about combat deaths, along with noncombat deaths, was long overdue.

"However, it is even more important that all figures about losses become known to the Military Prosecutor's Office, where the circumstances of each serviceman's death can be investigated," Melnikova said.

Ivanov's statement came amid his ongoing spat with Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov, who has highlighted the high rates of mortality and crime within the military.

The Military Prosecutor's Office releases noncombat death figures fairly regularly, but up to now accurate information about combat deaths has been hard to come by.

At the conference on Wednesday, human rights activists pointed out that in addition to high noncombat mortality among servicemen, servicemen's rights are often abused when their labor is used illegally.

Lyudmila Vakhnina of the Memorial human rights center, who has conducted a survey on forced labor in the military, said that the practice of using soldiers as free laborers is widespread.

Over the last two years, Memorial has documented about 100 cases in different 30 regions of soldiers being forced by their commanders to work as laborers, Vakhnina said.

"In some cases servicemen spend 1 1/2 years carrying out work ordered by their commanders," she said.

Soldiers often work constructing and renovating cottages for generals, or work on construction sites and in the fields when their commanders simply "lease out" their labor, Vakhnina said.

The military officers attending the conference agreed that the practice of using soldiers as forced laborers was illegal, but said that they had received hardly any complaints from servicemen or their parents about it.

"Recently, the Defense Ministry received a total of three complaints, and we sorted them out," said Colonel Vyacheslav Zvezdilin of the Ministry's education directorate, which is responsible for providing what the ministry calls "political and moral training" for servicemen.

Alexeyeva replied that servicemen and their parents take their problems to human rights groups, rather than to the Defense Ministry, as the ministry tended to cover up any wrongdoing.