A Russian anti-war activist testified in the European Parliament


Hundreds of soldiers detained in at least 13 prison camps


HRWF (27.03.2023) – On 2 March, MEP Udo Bullmann (Germany/ S&D Group), Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, organized a public hearing on conscientious objection to military service, with a special focus on Russian conscientious objectors in the framework of the “special military operation.” The panelists were:

  • Michael Wiener, Human Rights officer, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Sam Biesemans, Vice-President, European Bureau for Conscientious Objection
  • Sergey Krivenko, Member of the Board of “Memorial International” and head of the Russian NGO “Grazhdanin, armia, pravo” (“Citizen, Army, Law”)
  • Saša Belik, Advocacy officer, Sphere Foundation
  • Milana Shesterikova, Head of International Office, Russian Youth Democratic Movement “Vesna”
  • Kanstantsin Staradubets, External communication manager, Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Human Rights Without Frontiers is sharing with you the slightly testimony of Sasha Belik from the Sphere Foundation that we received earlier this month:


1. Current situation and detention camps


Since the beginning of the war, the movement of conscientious objectors has been joined by hundreds of people who either want to put an end to their participation in the crime of aggression, or who make every effort not to go to the army.


Before the beginning of the mobilisation, soldiers could ask the Ministry of Defense to terminate their contracts and hundreds of people used this right to conscientious objection. After the start of the mobilisation, it became impossible to break the contracts.


We now have thousands of people at the front who are either insisting on their right to an alternative civilian service or who ask to be demobilised for medical reasons. The reaction of the military commanders to such a high number of conscientious objectors was the creation of secret prisons, the so-called ‘cellars.’ Conscientious objectors who refuse to go to the frontline are illegally detained and tortured in these prisons.


Last year, the main detention places were in Brianka in July and Zaitseve in November. About 300 people were illegally detained in each of these camps. More than 13 such camps have been identified at the moment. Officially, the authorities of the Russian Federation call them “psychological rehabilitation centers.”


Conscription of people for military service now continues in three main ways: coercion to sign contracts, mobilisation and ordinary conscription.


  1. Mobilisation


According to the law, the call for mobilisation must be organised by independent Mobilization Commissions, which are civilian bodies. However, virtually, all decisions on mobilisation are made by the Military Commissariat.


In most regions, civil society does not even know who are the members of the Mobilization Commissions.


After the announcement of the mobilisation, human rights defenders recorded numerous kidnappings of people. Raids took place in hostels, subways, shelters for homeless people and entrances of residential buildings.


People who were caught were threatened with criminal prosecution if they refused to go to their military unit. The maximum punishment that is currently imposed for evading mobilisation is a small fine of 10 to 50 Euros but they were so frightened that they agreed to be mobilised.


According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, citizens have the right to ask to replace military service with an alternative civilian one. This right is still in force during the period of mobilisation. However, Russia has not adopted a law on how the alternative civilian service is to be arranged during the mobilisation.


Citizens subject to mass conscription submit applications for alternative civilian service but in the absence of law, authorities cannot take decisions.


  1. Ordinary conscription


With regard to the ordinary conscription, draftees are more protected by the law than the mobilised people because this is a standard procedure which has been operated in the last 30 years without major changes. However, human rights violations persist in this system as well.


Here, we face the same problem of the absence of an independent civil decision-making body. By law, such a body should be the Draft Commission but in practice all decisions are taken by the Military Commissariat.


Moreover, the alternative civilian service in Russia remains punitive and discriminatory in terms of duration and conditions.


  1. Minorities


A report about conscientious objection to military service today cannot ignore the rights of minorities, such as indigenous peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses and LGBT+ people.


The current persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses affects their right to conscientious objection to military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses are rather silent about the process of applying for alternative civilian service because they are afraid of being accused of extremism.


Putin mainly mobilises people from indigenous groups for the war. Most of the able-bodied male population from Tuva, Yakutia, Buryatia, Bashkiria and other republics were called up for the war. This is a genocide as some national minorities are threatened to disappear from the face of the earth.


In order to continue the war, an ideology is needed. For Putin, hatred, in particular, of LGBT+ people is part of such an ideology. It is no coincidence that the end of last year was marked by the adoption of a law on a complete ban of the so-called LGBT+ propaganda.


The regime needs an internal enemy, a social group, that can be blamed for all the internal problems that the war has led to.


The Russian army has always been homophobic and transphobic. To my personal appeal about what anti-discrimination policies are in the Russian army, the Ministry of Defense replied that there is no discrimination in the army and so, specific policies are not needed.


Therefore, it is not surprising that representatives of the LGBT+ community in Russia still resist and refuse to participate in the war. Homosexual conscious objectors were among the first to leave Russia after the beginning of the mobilisation. Great efforts to help them have been made by the organisations Qartera and QueerSvit.


Transgender people began to massively change gender markers in their passports. Since the beginning of the mobilisation, the number of such declarations has more than doubled, according to data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.


We think that Europe must respond to this outrageous use of LGBT+ hate and anti-gender movement for military purposes. Europe is united in support of the LGBT+ community.


Please pay attention to the example of Ukraine, which during the war held a gaypride in Kharkiv.


  1. Demands


In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the needs of the Russian antiwar community that will help us to speed up the victory of Ukraine and the end of the Putin regime.


  1. Less men — less soldiers. I would like to join the demands of ObjectWarCampaign and ask the European Parliament to issue a resolution confirming the right to asylum for deserters and conscientious objectors from Belarus and the Russian Federation.
  2. Step up the support for the Russian anti-war community. Distribute the best practices of Lithuania and Germany which are issuing humanitarian visas and residence permits to human rights activists and dissidents from Russia. That helps people to continue their work without a six-month gap to wait for the decision about asylum.
  3. Leave no one behind. Minorities are on the front of the fight with Putin inside Russia. Increase the support for indigenous people and LGBT+ people in Russia.


We need a resolution condemning the draft of predominantly indigenous people and demanding the abolition of the law on propaganda of LGBT +.”