Russian officer convicted of using soldiers for slavery

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A senior officer in Russia's elite missile troops has been found guilty of modern-day slavery and of hiring out conscript soldiers under his command for his personal personal financial gain.

The incident, in Novosibirsk, Siberia, is the latest in a long line of scandals that have exposed the misery of being conscripted into an army that was able to crush fascism and liberate Berlin in 1945, but has since fallen on hard times.

In this case, Deputy Commander Vladimir Kontonistov was convicted of hiring out his troops to private firms for cash that he then pocketed. The incident is embarrassing for Russia since the missile forces were previously thought to be free of the kind of corruption that has infected other parts of the armed forces - and even more so because they maintain and operate Russia's nuclear arsenal.

If anyone should be well-paid it should be them, but many officers hire out their troops in order to supplement their meagre wages.

The Novosibirsk court fined Kontonistov 56,000 roubles (£1,125) and banned him from holding any command for three years, a sentence prosecutors vowed to appeal as too lenient.

Reports of conscripts , who are drafted for two years, being exploited for the financial gain of their commanding officers are rife. Soldiers are put to work on building sites, in fields and even in factories while people higher up the chain of command turn a blind eye for a cut of the profits.

Sergei Ivanov, Russia's Defence Minister and a prime candidate to succeed Vladimir Putin, has ordered the authorities to clamp down on such practices saying he wants officers to be made examples of.

It has long been known that hazing or bullying in the armed forces has taken on almost medieval proportions. Second year recruits notoriously pick on their first year counterparts in a practice known as "Dedovshina" or "Rule of the Grandfathers". But a New Year's Eve incident at a prestigious tank-training academy in the city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals has shocked a public long inured to tales of everyday brutality in the armed forces.

Private Andrei Sychev, 19, was tied to a chair for at least three hours by drunken superiors to the extent that his blood circulation was dangerously restricted. His legs were brutally beaten and there are unconfirmed reports that he was raped. He did not receive the urgent medical attention he needed and as a result gangrene set in. In order to save his life, his legs, genitalia and fingers had to be amputated. He is still in a critical condition.

President Putin called the affair a terrible crime and has demanded a shake-up in the armed forces. Mr Ivanov's initial comment on the Sychev case was that he had not been told about it but that he was sure that it was "nothing serious". His blasé reaction led to calls for his resignation.