Azerbaijan: Base shooting focuses attention on possible hazing in military
|Publication Date||9 February 2010|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Azerbaijan: Base shooting focuses attention on possible hazing in military, 9 February 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b966e70c.html [accessed 1 October 2014]|
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Shahin Abbasov: 2/09/10
A fatal shooting incident at a military base west of Baku is raising questions about the extent of hazing in Azerbaijan's armed forces.
On the evening of January 28, two young soldiers – Pvt. Elkhan Azizov, 20, and Pvt. Sadig Mammadov, 19 – entered the headquarters of the base where they were stationed and shot dead a lieutenant colonel, a captain, a lieutenant and a warrant officer. They also wounded two soldiers. Azizov and Mammadov then shot and killed each other, according to the Defense Ministry's official version of events.
In keeping with Azerbaijani security restrictions, the name of the base has not been released. It is reportedly located in the Dashkesan Region, about 380 kilometers west of Baku. No senior Defense Ministry official, including Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, has commented publicly on the shootings so far. A base battalion deputy commander, Maj. Valad Gurbanov, and a platoon commander, Lt. Rustam Ahmedov, have been arrested for allegedly not safeguarding weaponry and committing "abuse of power," General Prosecutor Zahid Garalov told the state-owned news agency AzerTAJ on February 2.
President Ilham Aliyev has authorized the ministries of defense and national security to investigate the incident; Azerbaijan's deputy military prosecutor, Shafayat Imranov, is leading the investigative team.
Despite the government's apparent reticence concerning the shootings, the tragedy is spurring a spirited public debate about potential causes. Many experts and observers, airing their opinions in a variety of media outlets, believe hazing in the military is somehow connected to the base killings.
A tradition of hazing raw recruits predates Azerbaijani independence in 1991, having its roots in the Soviet era. The practice, known as dedovshchina in Russian, involved the systematic bullying of recruits by older conscripts and officers in the Soviet military, ostensibly to promote discipline.
Two pro-opposition media outlets in Azerbaijan, citing local residents, have reported that low-ranking soldiers at the Dashkesan base frequently complain about harassment and physical abuse by officers. The father of Pvt. Azizov, one of the January 28 assailants, was quoted by the Azadliq (Liberty) newspaper as saying that his son had dropped hints about enduring brutality at the base. The elder Azizov said his son had told him that he "should not expect his [the younger Azizov's] return [home] since he does not believe he could survive there [at the base]."
Defense Ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu on February 1 angrily condemned what he portrayed as irresponsible reporting surrounding the base shootings. "We should wait until the investigation has ended and not mislead public opinion," he said. Sabiroglu also expressed the belief that media reports were creating "serious problems for the investigation."
One Baku-based military expert, though, believes that the media reports are not exaggerated. "The soldiers acted together, suggesting a pre-planned murder," commented Uzeir Jafarov, who serves as a lieutenant colonel in Azerbaijan's army reserves. "And the fact they dared a mass killing of officers shows they had serious reasons for it – most likely violence by [those] officers."
The killings marked the second such event in less than a year; in May, 2009, another army private shot dead four officers and wounded five soldiers at a base in the Tovuz Region in southwestern Azerbaijan. He was sentenced to life in prison this month. Hazing was found to be a motivating factor in that incident.
One human rights activist believes that dismal living conditions on many army bases contribute to such spasms of violence, as well as to suicides. "Low wages and bad service conditions are affecting officers negatively and lead to such problems," said Sadagat Pashayeva, a representative of the Baku-based Women Rights Defense Society.
The average wage for an Azerbaijani officer is 450 manats (about $500) per month, one of the highest levels for a government salary. Service personnel, however, tell EurasiaNet that while some army bases, such as Baku's Bibiheybat facility, approach Western standards of construction and orderliness, others lack adequate heat, water and food.
To prevent a repeat of the January 28 tragedy, some civil society leaders have called for greater civilian oversight of the military – a potentially revolutionary change, given Azerbaijan's existing, top-down style of government. Sardar Yusifoglu, chairman of the non-governmental Union for the Cultural Development of Youth, argues that such measures are urgently needed to repair the Azerbaijani army's image.
The military appears aware of the problem. Reported crimes relating to the harassment or mistreatment of service personnel increased by 13.5 percent in 2009, over the previous year's total, Military Prosecutor Khanlar Veliyev stated at a year-in-review meeting on January 30, local media reported.
One non-governmental-organization leader cites still more disturbing statistics. Speaking at a February 1 Baku round-table on army harassment, Jasur Sumerenli, the editor of the Doktrina military news magazine, claimed that only 13 out of the 69 soldiers who died from gunshot wounds in 2009 were killed in front-line shootings. Although a cease-fire is technically in place along the so-called contact line separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, firefights and artillery duels reportedly occur on a frequent basis.
The data is derived from monitoring performed by the non-governmental Union of Retired Officers and Officers in Reserve. Yashar Jafarly, the union's chairman, claimed that monitoring done by his organization shows that harassment and physical abuse led to the deaths of at least 39 soldiers between 2003 and 2007.
Government officials seem intent on preventing public outrage about potential hazing from building up. In a statement, General Prosecutor Garalov called on citizens "not to politicize the tragedy and not to disseminate biased comments in the media."
Editor's Note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.