Article by: Ales Byalyatski
While Moscow continues to deny any form of military intervention in the Ukrainian conflict, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg, despite multiple threats, continues to report on the growing numbers of dead soldiers arriving from Ukraine with no information on the circumstances or the place of their deaths.
(Russian authorities) argue that these deaths simply do not exist. However, even if these figures cannot be confirmed, the information that has come from various sources to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg indicates that at least 100 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine and 300 have been wounded.
For years the Soldiers’ Mothers organization has been fighting for the rights of recruits and soldiers. Their work is a rare example of a civil initiative that evokes a powerful response in Russian society. One example is their fight against hazing, the extremely cruel form of bullying in the Russian army that each year results in dozens of deaths, tortures and suicides. The campaign conducted by the organization has forced the authorities to acknowledge the violence and to take measures to combat this phenomenon. Today the organization is providing assistance primarily to the soldiers (and their families) who refuse to fight in Ukraine. Gradually it has also become the main advocate for individuals and organizations, both Ukrainian and Russian, who oppose armed conflict with Ukraine.
The wall of silence
Today, however, the organization is faced with a wall of silence that muffles even the sound of weapons. Officially the Russian government is denying the involvement of the Russian army in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. There are no official statistics on the numbers of soldiers wounded or killed. The bodies are repatriated anonymously and are buried under conditions of extreme secrecy, even if the families are notified of the location of the graves. Typically, families are notified of the deaths, but there is no mention of the place of death.
However, the organization’s “hotline” has given its members the opportunity to gather testimonies from the soldiers. Although the data is difficult to generalize, the organization says at least 100 have been killed and 300 wounded. This data renders Moscow’s denials absurd. The organization has demanded that army authorities investigate the circumstances of the deaths of the soldiers who had been fighting in Ukraine and determine responsibility for the infringement of the soldiers’ rights and the presence of Russian troops in a neighboring country.
All these requests remain unanswered. The army justifies the maintenance of military secrets out of security concerns. Worse, authorities speak of the “protection of private information” and claim that the information issued by the organization is the result of “Ukrainian propaganda.”
In Russia, this accusation sounds like a threat to the organization, despite the fact that its head is a member of the Human Rights Council under Russia’s president. Since this issue first surfaced, the organization has been registered as a “foreign agent,” and its appeal has been rejected for the same reason. Members of the organization are being persecuted, threatened, and often physically attacked. The last straw was the recent statement on the Russian NTV channel calling them “fascists,” along with all those who support the Kyiv regime.
To mention one instance, which has become symbolic of the state terror suffered by the Soldiers’ Mothers, is the case of 73-year-old Ludmila Bohatenkova, arrested on Friday, October 17. The head of the Mothers’ Committee of Stavropol, she was formally charged with “fraud,” but, according to her family, was arrested shortly after reporting the deaths of 9 Russian contract soldiers in Ukraine. Released three days later, she is under constant threat.
The situation with the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint Petersburg is not an isolated case in modern Russia, where a sharp increase in repressive laws is silencing more and more non-governmental organizations. Today state paranoia has reached major proportions, the extent of which can be judged from the growing international isolation of Vladimir Putin’s regime. More than ever before, Soldiers’ Mothers are appealing to the international community, especially to civil society, to mobilize and not suffer the government’s lies in silence. However, the organization does not consider itself an oppositional force and continues to stress the need to utilize available legal structures in Russia to obtain answers to the questions that it poses to authorities, especially when it comes to the fate of Russian conscripts sent to the east of Ukraine. The conscripts have the right to respect and should not be viewed as “ghosts” of the Russian administrative system. These mothers are struggling to have information on the place of the death of their children placed on the coffins returning from Ukraine.
In this context, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) expresses its concern over the escalation of the atmosphere of hostility and fear in Russian society. In addition, FIDH calls on the Russian authorities to stop the government’s aggression against Soldiers’ Mothers and other NGOs.
EDITORIAL NOTE — Ales Byalyatski is the vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the founder and head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna, which provides financial and legal assistance to political prisoners and their families. In 2010 he was arrested on trumped up charges of tax evasion following protests in connection with the controversial presidential election in Belarus. On July 21, 2014, he was released from prison 20 months early in what many believe was a goodwill gesture by the Belarusian government to improve relations with the West. A longtime human rights activist, Byalyatski was nominated for Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.