Peacetime Deaths Row in Azerbaijan

The Azerbaijani army is accused of criminal negligence as many young conscripts die of heat-stroke.

Peacetime Deaths Row in Azerbaijan

The Azerbaijani army is accused of criminal negligence as many young conscripts die of heat-stroke.

The death of eight Azerbaijani conscripts has provoked angry claims that the army has little concern for the lives of the young men in its charge.

Officers appear to be ignoring an official decree that soldiers should not do drills in intense summer temperatures and one doctor alleged that conscripts were being used as little more than cheap labour.

Over the course of last week, the defence ministry announced the death of eight soldiers from heat-stroke. The Turan news agency reported that several dozen were in hospitals across the country having succumbed to the scorching conditions.

Opposition politicians have denounced the government for irresponsibility. Etibar Mamedov, leader of the National Independence Party, said commander-in-chief President Heidar Aliev and other army leaders bore direct responsibility for the young men’s deaths and demanded an investigation.

Isa Gambar, leader of the Musavat party, called on the army to cancel training exercises because of the heat, while Sardar Jalaloglu of the Democratic Party went further, calling the deaths a “state crime”.

The multiple tragedy suggests that the country’s military is in a miserable state, despite the insistence of the defence minister Safar Abiev that it “meets NATO standards”. The army leadership has not commented officially on the deaths - that the press office of the defence ministry announced that the men had died at all was a rare occurrence.

Doctors say that the main cause of heat-stroke is standing for many hours under a hot sun and lack of drinking water. Because of this, there are official instructions to officers not to conduct drills when the temperature goes above 40 degrees. However, this order appears to be being broken.

Many of those who fell victim to the heat were taking part in exercises in the Beilagan region, in temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade. There are reports that there are dozens of soldiers in Beilagan hospital, nine of them in a critical condition.

One doctor, speaking anonymously, said that the real reason the soldiers were in hospital was officers were using them as cheap labour to build houses, entirely illegally.

In July last year, 15 young soldiers were reported to have died of various diseases and heatstroke. A further 18 are said to have died the following month, 12 from suicide, three from heat-stroke, two of thirst and one because of bullying.

Hospitals around the country are also treating many soldiers who are sick with diphtheria, dysentery, malaria and brucellosis. Last winter, ten were reported to have frozen to death in the Murodvag mountains.

Rights campaigners complain that their persistent protests over the army’s mistreatment of conscripts are not being heard. “Last year we appealed to the president over the death of the soldiers, but the letters did not get to him,” said Roza Aligyzy, chairwoman of the Soldiers’ Mothers Society. “We want to try to meet the commander-in-chief. There is no one else to complain to, everyone knows about this.”

On July 27, President Aliev admitted in general terms that there were problems in the army. Meeting graduate pilots from the Higher Military Academy, he criticised some units, where, he said, there was “no order and there are some mistakes”. He said that officers should take care of new recruits. But he made no other comment and made no specific mention of the recent spate of deaths in the army.

On July 29, opposition deputy Mais Safarli demanded that parliament should send the defence ministry an official request to look into the conscripts’ deaths. He asked rhetorically why heat-stroke was felling only army recruits and not the members of other branches of the armed forces. But parliament has so far made no response to this request.

Mamed Suleimanov is a correspondent with Novoye Vremya newspaper.

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