By Galina Stolyarova
The St. Petersburg Times
Fifty-eight young men died as a result of non-combat-related causes in the military detachments of the northwestern district in 2009, Igor Lebed, chief military prosecutor of the Leningrad Military District, said Thursday.
Nationwide, the figure totaled 273 deaths, according to the country’s Defense Ministry. Suicides account for more than half of non-combat deaths in the armed forces. According to statistics released on Thursday, 137 people committed suicide in the Russian army in 2009. A further 88 people died as the result of accidents, 20 died in traffic incidents, 17 were murdered, seven died in incidents involving the misuse of weapons, and four died as the result of hazing.
The Defense Ministry estimated that on average, up to 500 recruits die from non-combat-related causes every year in Russia.
But human rights groups contest official statistics and claim the actual number is at least twice as high. Worse still, human rights groups insist hazing cases are often reported as accidental deaths.
The St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers human rights organization said recruits are driven to suicide by hazing, violence and physical abuse. Some of the letters kept at the organization’s headquarters were written by recruits who later committed suicide.
These letters are sometimes brought to the pressure group by desperate parents wishing to sue the military authorities.
“Every month, deserters and their relatives flock to us with absolutely chilling stories of torture, forced prostitution and slave labor,” said Ella Polyakova, head of Soldiers’ Mothers.
Investigations into suicides and alleged abuses typically lead nowhere.
Obtaining evidence from a closed structure like the Russian army, which has its own military prosecution system, has proven difficult.
“It is a shame that the Russian armed forces are more concerned about their image — which they want to preserve at all costs — than about establishing the truth and protecting the victims of abuse,” said Polyakova.
“Unfortunately, in Russia, victims’ testimonies are not treated seriously enough,” she said. “Even if we submit a whole pile of testimonies, the prosecutors can easily refuse to open a criminal case, claiming that there is not enough evidence.”
“Basically, what happens is that the prosecutors weigh the testimonies of the deserters against the word of the officers; needless to say the victims do not stand a chance,” Polyakova added.