By Irina Titova
6:00 a.m. May 8, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Military prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the death of a Russian soldier that allegedly resulted from abuse by fellow servicemen, officials said Tuesday.
Investigators were looking into the allegations of abuse against Sgt. Sergei Zavyalov, who died in a hospital over the weekend, said district military prosecutor Igor Lebed.
The Russian military has been plagued by rampant abuse of conscripts by fellow servicemen, making the compulsory draft extremely unpopular.
Officials initially said Zavyalov had injured himself accidentally, but Soldiers Mothers, a leading rights group, claimed he had been brutally beaten by fellow soldiers on April 27.
Ella Polyakova, the head of St. Petersburg's branch of Soldiers Mothers, said that an officer with the soldier's unit saw Zavyalov's condition but told him just to go to bed.
As Zavyalov's condition worsened, officials sent him to a nearby military hospital where doctors were not qualified to treat his grave head injuries, Polyakova told The Associated Press. When Zavyalov was finally sent to the St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy, the city's top military clinic, he fell into a coma and doctors were unable to save his life, she said.
She described Zavyalov's case as the latest example of widespread bullying of soldiers by fellow servicemen in the nation's military.
“The cases of abuse and murder of soldiers in Russian army are endless now,” Polyakova told the AP. “Serious measures should be taken now to stop this situation.”
The Defense Ministry reported 554 non-combat deaths last year, about half of the number in 2005. It said that last year's figure included 27 deaths from bullying and abuses by other servicemen and 210 suicides.
So far this year, the ministry reported 110 non-combat deaths as of mid-April, including five deaths from abuse by fellow soldiers and 65 suicides.
Soldiers' rights groups say that many of the suicides also resulted from bullying and other abuses.
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve in the 1.2 million-member military, but only about 9 percent typically are drafted. The rest avoid the feared conscription by signing up for college, being excused for health reasons – often falsified – or simply paying bribes.
A recently passed law cut the current two-year conscription term to 1½ years starting this spring and will further reduce it to one year beginning in 2008, but it will also cancel most existing deferments.