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Azerbaijan: Army Hazing Scandal

Arrests made after shocking footage of conscripts being beaten.
By Jasur Sumerinli

Two video-clips posted on the Internet showing brutality in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army have fuelled allegations that hazing is rife, despite unprecedented increases on spending on the military in recent years.



Azerbaijani prosecutors have made arrests and launched an enquiry into the incidents recorded on the clips, after initially denying that they were authentic.



In one of the videos, recorded on a mobile phone, a soldier who has completed most of his military service – still known in Azerbaijan by the Russian word “dembel” – forces five younger conscripts into a contest in which they are forced to beat each other in pairs.



The video shows how one soldier has lost his hearing because of a sharp blow and is clutching his ears with pain on his face, while another has a big bruise on his face. The dembel watches them, laughing. The soldiers’ clothing suggests that all this is happening in a military hospital or in the medical facility of a military unit.



An earlier clip posted on YouTube on October 4 shows two dembels savagely beating 20 or 25 new recruits lined up in front of their beds in a barracks. The clip caused outrage and angry reactions in the Azerbaijani press.



The security agencies and military prosecutors began to investigate the incident and it was revealed that the clip had been filmed in an interior ministry forces unit in the Hajigabul region. This was confirmed to IWPR by the interior ministry press office.



The press office said that the soldiers who were beaten up had been called up in July this year. Two sergeants, Vugar Agayev and Eldaniz Ragimov, who allegedly carried out the beatings have been arrested and are now in Baili prison in Baku. The commander of the unit, lieutenant-colonel Gamlet Gurbanov and his deputy responsible for education, Beiler Eminov, have been reprimanded and relieved of their posts.



The military prosecutor’s office has also opened a criminal case into the staged fights recorded on the other clip. It said one person had been arrested and an investigation was underway.



Before this scandal broke, the security structures had consistently denied that hazing was a problem in the Azerbaijani armed forces. When the first film appeared on the Internet, defence ministry spokesman Eldar Sabirogly said it was a fabrication and a “provocation”.



Yet independent research suggests that these kinds of incidents are actually on the rise. According to a study conducted by the military think-tank Doktrina in the first nine months of 2008, around 50 military servicemen died in Azerbaijan, with 35 of those deaths occurring off the battlefield. The centre says that the number of suicides and irregular deaths is greater than last year – and this at a time when the military budget has been increasing by more than 50 per cent a year and now stands at over one billion dollars.



Military analyst Uzeir Jafarov says that there are three main reasons why hazing is rife in the army.



“The first reason is that the conscription age has been raised to 35,” he said. “People with such a big age gap between them are very different both physically and in their outlook. And that leads to illegal actions by the strong over the weak. A 35-year-old draftee instantly becomes a figure of authority in a military unit.”



The second reason, he said, was that there is no protection of the rights of soldiers written into military legal documents. He also blamed the poor food conscripts are given. “Soldiers often resort to breaking the law because they are so badly fed,” he said.



Another military expert, retired colonel Ildyrym Mamedov said that the Azerbaijani army had inherited hazing from Soviet times.



“This problem was here before – it is now and it will continue to exist,” said Mamedov, who said that the army was still working “under the laws of the old Soviet Union”.



“There is a double centre of power in the Azerbaijan army nowadays,” he said. “Everyone knows that our country when it became a member of the Council of Europe took on obligations with regard to human rights. And Azerbaijan also signed international human rights conventions. But today despite all the international conventions, commanders in the army have the right to detain servicemen subordinate to them for ten days.”



The Public Union of Officers, which comprises officers who are in reserve or retirement, has also issued a report which is strongly critical of hazing and corruption in the army and an official failure to combat them.



The head of the organisation, Yashar Jafarli, said that in the past five years more soldiers had died as a result of irregular behaviour in the army than on the ceasefire line near Nagorny Karabakh that divides Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.



“In the last few years, cases of suicide in the army have sharply increased,” said Jafarli. “It is quite possible that hazing is at the root of this. The reasons for the absolute majority of suicides that take place in the army since the truce [over Nagorny Karabakh in 1994] are unknown. But we can suppose that in most cases soldiers are pushed to suicide by the men they are serving with.”



Jafarli said that there was evidence that hazing had “national characteristics”, in other words being linked to discrimination against different ethnic groups.



The military prosecutor’s office says that a series of meetings will be held to discuss the state of the army and that the procedures whereby servicemen could lodge complaints would be simplified.



For the past few years, the telephone numbers of military prosecutors have been hung on the walls of most military units. Every soldier has been told that if he complains about a problem, it will be investigated. But soldiers have been afraid to do so. The new proposal is for soldiers to be able to lodge their complaints anonymously.



Jasur Sumerinli is editor-in-chief of the defence affairs website www.milaz.info and a military observer with the Aina and Zerkalo newspapers in Baku.

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