INVESTIGATION: The Army from which Recruits Flee
“I left the unit out of fear. I joined the army to do military service and not to let someone mock me. (…) The superiors reacted aggressively. I learnt nothing from the military service: I made repairs, tidied up and removed the grass with my hands. There were only two military trainings, one at the very beginning and one at the training ground. At the same time, military training was done only when someone was coming, (…).” These are the testimonies of a young man under criminal investigation in a case opened for desertion from the National Army. Such cases and testimonies are quite many.
The conditions in the barracks make many young people give up the military service, which is mandatory by law. Subsequently, they are found guilty and end up with criminal investigation for “desertion”. After Marin Pavlescu talked about being harassed in the army, discussions about the phenomenon of violence in military units resumed, as well as questions about what the compulsory military service in Moldova is like. ZdG discussed with experts, lawyers, human rights defenders and representatives of the authorities about what makes the National Army a place from which young people want to escape.
In 2008, Andrei (name changed, ed.n.) left the military unit for the first time after he was kicked in the chest. He remembers those days at the end of 2008 with sadness. Later, there was another attempt to leave the military unit.
In 2019, Alexandru Zubco, head of the Torture Prevention Section of the Office of People’s Advocate, visited a military unit in Chișinău to verify some information circulating in the media. It was later confirmed that three young people had been subjected to acts classified as human rights torture. “The case involved hitting using hard objects, so there were quite visible marks on the body,” Zubco said.
“Who shall the Prosecutor’s Office believe?”
Andrei voluntarily joined the army in November 2008. His personal belongings were taken away, he was given a uniform, and after the military oath, he got the opportunity to go home for three days. “Once you are sworn in, you are in their hands: torture begins,” he said. The first act of aggression against him followed: he was kicked in the chest. As a result, he left the unit and went to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. “But the prosecutor on duty does not pay any attention to it,” the man added. When he was brought to the unit, the superiors asked him, “Who do you think they will believe – us, the officers, or you, a nobody?”
Upon his return, his life in the army went on as before. “You could have problems even if you had no conflicts with anyone. It depended on the mood of the so-called “dezi” (from the Russian “dedovșina” – an informal practice of constant bullying of recruits during their service, ed.n.). For example, at night they can get you out of bed, come and check your “plywood”, that is, your chest. And the officers have the same habits,” Andrei adds. Two weeks later, he left the military unit and went to the Prosecutor’s Office again. This time a criminal case was opened for desertion.
“They do not charge the foreigners, but those who want to defend it.”
Little has changed in the barracks of the National Army today. This November, 19-year-old Marin Pavlescu publicly announced that he wouldn’t return to his brigade where he was subjected to physical and mental violence. It all happened after it was found out in the army about his sexual identity. The young man then stated that he was fully aware that his actions would be classified as desertion, but that he was taking responsibility for the possible punishment, including imprisonment. The Military Inspectorate of the Ministry of Defense carried out an investigation, and concluded that “no intimidation, humiliation and discriminatory actions against soldier Pavlescu, on the grounds that he was homosexual, were identified.” The materials accumulated following the investigation were to be sent to the Prosecutor’s Office.
On the court portal we find several sentences in which young people prosecuted for “desertion” talk about the mockery they were subjected to in barracks, facts that determined them to leave. A young man enrolled in 2019, declares from the dock where he got for desertion, that “physical force was always used.” In his final statement in court, he said that he joined the army after his birthday and was thinking about a military career, but he saw only “mockery” there. He stated that he always cared for his country “above all else” and that this was why he went to the army, but he was “completely disappointed”.
“I left the unit out of fear. I joined the army to do military service and not to let someone mock me. (…) The superiors reacted aggressively. I learnt nothing from the military service: I made repairs, tidied up and removed the grass with my hands. There were only two military trainings, one at the very beginning and one at the training ground. At the same time, military training was done only when someone was coming, (…). I was completely disappointed with the National Army, they do not charge the foreigners, but those who want to defend it,” he pointed out. The young man received a contravention penalty in the form of a fine.
According to the testimony of another military who joined the National Army, and whose case was examined in the spring of this year, he repeatedly left from there because other contract soldiers “behaved inappropriately, used obscene language and hit him.” He went to the hospital because he had to pass a check-up with all the soldiers and, taking advantage of the fact that he was not being monitored, he ran home. At the beginning of 2020, on the way to the military unit, another attempt followed, when he decided to jump out of the car. Eventually, he was fined.
According to Article 371 of the Criminal Code of Moldova, desertion, i.e. leaving the military unit, is punishable by a fine of 850 to 950 conventional units or imprisonment for up to five years. At the same time, the law stipulates that the soldier who deserted for the first time is released from criminal liability, if the desertion was committed following some difficult circumstances. According to the Ministry of Defense, in 2019, there were registered 78 cases of leaving military units, and in 2020 – another 53 similar cases.
“They refuse to admit the gravity of the situation”
Alexandru Zubco, the head of the Department for the Prevention of Torture within the Office of the People’s Advocate, points out that the messages sent by young people who had the courage to speak publicly about acts of violence in the army should not be interpreted as individual claims, but as systemic problems. These should be followed by clear answers and steps.
In 2019, after the verifications in the case of the three young people subjected to violent acts of punishment, the Office of the People’s Advocate prepared a special report, in which it analyzed the judicial practice, and this showed that in such cases the courts qualify the acts as military crime, refusing to see acts of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. “For example, the senior officer assaulted the military, and it is treated as an act of violence, simply punishable by fines or short-term deprivation of liberty, which is reclassified in terms of evidence. That is, the gravity of the actions is not admitted,” Zubco details.
In 2020, nine acts of violence were documented, but Alexandru Zubco is of the opinion that the latest statements in the public space prove that such actions continue. “Those forms of this phenomenon of ‘dedovsina’ still exist in military units, even if the Ministry does not admit it. We thought that the situation had improved, but we see that in 2021 cases reappeared and it means that there is a tendency,” he considers.
“If a young person reveals it, he will be labeled or punished in his unit.”
The Office of the People’s Advocate carried out the last more extensive monitoring in the military units about six years ago, after which only the persons detained on the territory were monitored. “I mean, the garrison was selected as a target object. We also planned to go last year, but due to the epidemic the units were the first to self-isolate and we did not monitor them extensively, we went occasionally either for individual requests or to verify information in the media,” Zubco clarifies.
As for the individual notices, he states that the issue of granting protection arises. “If a young man reveals this, he will be labeled or punished in his unit. This fear exists and it is natural, and from here this belief that after 12 months of service, the problem will be clarified. However, every soldier must feel safe, and the mechanism of dealing with complaints should be better, more active and timely.”
Another aspect referred to by the head of the section for the prevention of torture is that “young people are not in military units to be disciplined or educated in ‘a masculine style’, but because they have to learn the subject or the constitutional obligation.” Therefore, in the period before incorporation, his recommendation would be to actively communicate with young people, so that they know what the alternatives are, as well as what military service means.
Term military service in the National Army lasts 12 months, and graduates of higher education institutions are incorporated for a short-term service, three months.
Penalties for disciplinary violations vs. crime
Viorel Cibotaru, former Minister of Defense, expert in the field of security and conflict resolution, emphasizes that an important direction in the activity with the personnel of the National Army is the development of a branch of international law, which refers to the rights of recruits. And in this sense, “newer studies and recommendations have been made.”
Cibotaru says that during his term of office, he noticed a decrease in the phenomenon of hazing, as well as the existence of multiple problems regarding the deviant behavior of the military, especially those in the term, as well as non-statutory relations, “which refers not only to those between soldiers, but also between officers and soldiers.” Cibotaru also refers to a number of other issues, such as the “corporate character of the military institution.”
“For example, this pyramid of authority leadership of the military units, in which, in principle, there is one-person leadership, also imposes a certain type of relationship between people, which is regulated quite well. Of course, there is a red line that should never be crossed – neither soldiers, nor military, nor civilian employees should be mistreated. The system of applying punishments should not be associated with the ill-treatment of citizens, the application of harassment measures of various types, or discrimination,” argues the expert. When asked about the provision on desertion and the cases opened in recent years on this issue, Cibotaru states that the word desertion should not be used.
Expert: Moldova needs an adjustment of its legislative framework
“Firstly, it has a very tough legal explanation and is related, in fact, to the unjustified refusal to serve. Rather, we have many cases of unjustified abandonment of military unit, so these are disciplinary violations, not criminal ones, because desertion is related to a crime committed against the state in times of war or conflict. Then desertion is punishable by the heaviest articles, so to speak,” analyzes Cibotaru. The expert states that Moldova needs to adjust its legislative framework, to revise certain models of behaviors, and update its national defense strategy.
“Of course, these reforms should reflect, first of all, an increase in the ability of the National Army to vary out its basic missions – the defense of the country and the collective defense. Secondly, speaking of a whole series of phenomena that have recently affected the society of Moldova, we must find the tools to combat them and create a much higher degree of resilience to them – the demographic problem, an increase in crime or acts causing deviant behavior, including alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty. So, the basic documents that refer to the defense and national security should reflect this desideratum,” concludes Cibotaru.
The Military Prosecutor’s Office was liquidated to the detriment of violence prevention in military units
Vadim Vieru, Promo-LEX lawyer, considers that the liquidation of the Military Prosecutor’s Office, voted in 2016, “was not the best solution, in terms of preventing violent acts in military institutions, because the interest of civilian prosecutors to document such cases is lower.” Vieru also believes that the National Army is the mirror of society. Accordingly, there are the same stereotypes, the same problems of discrimination and differential treatment that exist in society.
“In our country, military service is compulsory. There are good sides in the in-term service for soldiers, such as making a military career, as well as bad sides – many people dodge, there are suspicions of corruption, which lead to avoiding service in the army. Many people from socially vulnerable families get there, who, in principle, can also become victims,” explains the lawyer.
However, desertion remains a necessary provision, “once we have a National Army, which has a special status through the Constitution,” says Vieru. “The question is why these desertions happen. It is important for the military to study why such incidents occur and to apply preventive measures,” he adds. To improve the situation, in his opinion, the government should prioritize the reform, ensure the professionalization of the Army and eliminate as much as possible the compulsory recruitment. “Once we have professionalism, the problems will disappear. This requires money, of course. You can’t have a professional army without investment,” Vieru concludes.
In October this year, the Cabinet of Ministers approved the decision on the incorporation task in October 2021 – January 2022, which was 1050 recruits for full-time military service in the National Army and 10 persons for short-term military service.
Ministry of Defense: “It is our duty to solve these cases.”
“Some young people find it more difficult at first to adapt to this harsher regime of military service, and some are not aware of all the violations they commit or may commit,” said Eduard Ohladciuc, Chief of Staff of the National Army, referring to the situation in the barracks of the National Army.
At the same time, he points out that “previously desertion was classified as voluntary leaving or absence from work while now the legislation has been amended and there is only this provision.”
Accordingly, if a young soldier getting back from vacation was delayed by an hour or two, due to the bus, this fact is passed to the category of “desertion” – “and it is our duty to solve all these cases, investigation is carried out and documents are sent to the Prosecutor’s Office.”
Eduard Ohladciuc points out that sanctions and disciplinary measures are usually applied to the young soldier. “And then, the Prosecutor’s Office often closes these cases or files them, because the military was already sanctioned, and he admitted his guilt and realized what he had done,” the official said. “We also have psychologists who talk to young people from the first day they come to the unit, and they have a psychological dossier. However, they end up here, each with his own character and education; it’s a group of men, where everyone tries to impose himself, to prove that he is right. Some are slower, some are more phlegmatic, or more of a sanguine type, faster, so misunderstandings are inevitable. We tried to complete the units with persons of the same term to serve, to exclude cases of irregular relationships. Every blow or insult is investigated and, if there are bodily injuries, the documents must be submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office, the cases are not hidden,” says Eduard Ohladciuc.
The Ministry of Defense claims that it pays special attention to preventing acts of aggression in military units, and tries to take measures; however, “based on the budget they have, the possibilities are limited.” In 2021, the budget approved for the Ministry of Defense was 914 million lei. In 2019, it amounted to 736,9 million lei.
“A strong gap in power actually breeds humiliation and helplessness.|”
Psychologist Ana Niculaeș points out that young people bring with them in the army models of behavior that they learn in their environments. “When domestic violence is widespread in society and children are brought up through physical violence, they learn that this is a way of communication, although a faulty one, but instinctual, it is a taken model and in an environment in which strength is the basic element, it is unconsciously encouraged or accepted,” she claims.
Continuing this idea, Niculaeș also says that, as long as a relationship is based on helplessness, this does not create resilience. “Resilience means showing the person the right way. For example, in wrestling, there are clear rules, including how to defend yourself, so we can talk about resilience. But if there is a very strong gap in power, this actually breeds humiliation and helplessness. This state of humiliation and helplessness can cause bouts of depression,” the psychologist warns. Therefore, from his point of view, it is very important to have public policies and procedures that convey very clearly that we, as a state, are absolutely intolerant of violence.