Brutal bullying puts Russian army in the dock

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The Independent Online

Attempts to convict a trio of soldiers who are accused of perpetrating Russia's most high-profile case of a brutal military initiation ceremony in recent years are at the centre of a new national scandal.

Pte Andrei Sychev, then aged 19 and serving as a conscript soldier, alleges that he was savagely tortured by older soldiers on New Year's Eve of last year.

The "punishment" he endured was so extreme that doctors had to amputate his legs and his genitalia in the days following the attack and Pte Sychev is still in hospital slipping in and out of a critical condition.

He appears to have fallen victim to a long-established Russian military tradition where second year recruits pick on their first year counterparts in a practice known as "Dedovshina" or "Rule of the Grandfathers".

The "Sychev affair" became a cause célèbre overnight, triggering a national debate on the merits of continuing to use a conscript army. But seven months later and almost four weeks into the trial, attempts to bring the three soldiers accused of the attack to justice have become embroiled in controversy.

Five witnesses including several star witnesses said to have "killer testimony" have mysteriously disappeared and not appeared in court. And Pte Sychev's mother and sister claim they have been offered $100,000 (£54,000) or a flat in Moscow or St Petersburg to drop the case.

Russia's most senior military prosecutor is also investigating reports that a mysterious general talked with three of the witnesses without a lawyer urging them to withdraw their statements. All three have apparently done so.

The case has become far more than the tragic story of one young soldier. The reputation of Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister and one of the favourites to succeed Mr Putin in 2008, is also on the line as is the prestige of the Russian army.

Many unnamed military sources in the claim Pte Sychev made up his testimony and that the case was "a provocation" designed to discredit Mr Ivanov and the military's top brass.