MOSCOW – Russian military prosecutors pledged Monday to investigate allegations that young conscripts were forced into prostitution by fellow soldiers — the latest claim of rampant abuse in the nation's armed forces.
Andrei Gavrilyuk, a spokesman for St. Petersburg's military prosecutor, said his office would launch an inquiry into the allegations brought by the Soldiers' Mothers group, a leading Russian nongovernment organization championing soldiers' rights, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.
An activist with the group in St. Petersburg, Lyubov Yezheleva, told The Associated Press it learned about the alleged abuse from a 20-year-old conscript.
"He said he was forced into male prostitution by fellow soldiers who beat him and demanded that he earn money for them," Yezheleva said. She said the conscript was serving with the interior troops unit No. 3727, in the center of St. Petersburg near the renowned Hermitage art museum.
She refused to name him out of fear for his safety.
"Regrettably, it's not the only case of soldiers being forced into male prostitution that we are aware of," Yezheleva said. She said another soldier who served in St. Petersburg made a similar claim in 2005.
Soldiers' Mothers head Valentina Melnikova said the claims were "not at all unusual."
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for interior troops, sought to cast doubt on the serviceman's claim. Col. Vasily Panchenkov, spokesman for the interior troops, also said efforts to publicize the claim was "aimed at discrediting military service," theITAR-Tass and RIA-Novosti news agencies reported.
Panchenkov said the conscript who made the claim was "well known" to regional commanders, according to the news agencies. He said the serviceman, conscripted in 2005, had been wanted by military authorities because he failed to return from leave in April 2006 and then fled a military hospital where he was brought after being detained in May.
Human rights activist Ruslan Linkov told Ekho Moskvy that claims about soldiers from unit No. 3727 being forced into prostitution had appeared several years ago, but prosecutors ignored them.
The Russian armed forces have been plagued by rampant abuse of young conscripts by older soldiers, which has made military service extremely unpopular.
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required by law 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.