MOSCOW, November 15 (RIA Novosti) - The lower house of Russia's parliament passed a set of laws on a third and final reading Wednesday to reinstate disciplinary isolation cells, or guardhouses, in the country's armed forces.
The regulations approved by the State Duma call for the detention of servicemen for disciplinary violations and temporary confinement in guardhouses for up to 30 days, and in certain cases up to 45 days.
Guardhouses in the army were banned in the summer of 2002, as decisions to confine servicemen were usually made by commanding officers, in breach of the Constitution.
According to the regulations set out in the bill, decisions to detain servicemen must be made in line with military regulations, by a military garrison court judge. A serviceman has the right to a lawyer, and to appeal the court's decision.
The set of laws also state that only junior male servicemen can be confined in guardhouses, while officers and female servicemen cannot.
The laws are expected to come into force January 1, 2007 if they receive the approval of the upper house, the Federation Council, and the president.
But the decision to reinstate guardhouses was met with criticism from some of Russia's human rights activists, who said they feared the new laws will help cover up hazing attacks in the army, and might result in arbitrariness among military officers.
Valentina Melnikova, the chairwoman of the Union of Soldiers Mothers' Committees of Russia, said the idea of the laws on guardhouses will only help prosecutors, courts martial and the Defense Ministry to formally though not actually reduce crime statistics in the Army, by classifying crimes, including hazing, as disciplinary violations.
The Russian military was plagued by a series of hazing incidents in recent years that have led to the death or injury of low-ranking soldiers. The most notorious case involved a New Year assault on Private Andrei Sychyov by older servicemen, which led to the amputation of his legs and genitals and provoked an outcry throughout Russia.
"Beating, which is classified in the Criminal Code as non-regulation relations, could be classified not as a crime, but as a disciplinary violation," Melnikova said.
She also voiced concern over the selectiveness of the new laws, as they will mainly be applied to soldiers.
"They can be applied to soldiers, but not to officers and warrant officers. That is discrimination," she said.
Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and the head of the Russian Public Chamber's commission on public control over law enforcement agencies and reforms in the legal and judicial system, said the re-introduction of guardhouses could sideline humanitarian principles and lead to arbitrariness among officers.
"There is a concern that this institution [of guardhouses], which is re-introduced again, could be abused by some officers," Kucherena, who was actively involved in solution of Sychyov hazing case, said.
Addressing the new provision on confinement decision-making by military garrison courts, Kucherena said it was a positive decision, adding he hoped that judges will thoroughly consider possible disciplinary violations.
But Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a veteran of the Russian human rights movement and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, was not optimistic about either guardhouses or decisions being made by military garrison courts, saying it will only create opportunities for human rights violations.
"Guardhouses are located on the territories of military units," Alekseyeva said, pointing out that judges will not be checking guardhouse regimes and how those confined there are treated. "This puts a detainee into a dependent position on those who decided his punishment."
She said she believed that even if a decision to send a serviceman to a guardhouse is made by a military garrison court, the terms of the punishment itself will in reality be determined by a commanding officer.