Russian criminals serving huge sentences ‘pardoned’ and freed after fighting against Ukraine
Russian criminals, at least two of whom were serving long sentences for grave crimes, have been freed after taking part in Russia’s war against Ukraine. They were also presented with some kind of document, claiming to be a ‘pardon’, although this may be part of the propaganda drive to get criminal recruits for the so-called Wagner private military company and almost certainly has no legal standing.
Freedom and a pardon are known to have been two of the promises made to prisoners from the outset, with the third being payment on a scale that the men would otherwise have little chance of earning even once they had served their sentences. It is, formally, illegal in Russia to be a mercenary, but Russia’s defence ministry is known to have been working closely with the Wagner unit since at least 2014, and the only Russians who have been convicted on (spurious) charges of being a mercenary are those who helped Ukraine defend its territory. There are also no legal mechanisms for releasing convicted prisoners to fight abroad, nor for issuing pardons. All of that is, however, being overlooked when it comes to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former convicted prisoner who owes his current millionaire status to his relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and his Wagner unit.
Olga Romanova from the civic initiative for political prisoners ‘Rus’ sidyashchaya’ [‘Rus behind bars’] from FAN, an ‘information agency’ associated with Prigozhin. The video shows several convicted prisoners who agreed to kill Ukrainians as part of the Wagner unit and who are back in Russia, having lost limbs in the fighting. The men are handed pieces of paper and medals, with three told that they are receiving confirmation of a ‘pardon’ while one is told that his is a document confirming his release.
Romanova stresses that these are simply pieces of paper. “I am in no doubt that these people are now free, but just as there was no law about this, so now there is not. This is not pardoning.” Romanova pointed out that only the President can pardon people, with the procedure for this complicated and beginning with pardoning commissions at regional level. This is, however, one of the promises which Prigozhin and Wagner unit leaders have been making when they travel around Russian prisons to recruit prisoners to fight against Ukraine. According to her information, over 12 thousand prisoners have already been recruited. Judging by the video, these include Rustam Borovkov who was sentenced to 13 years in 2017 for violent robbery; deliberately causing fatal injuries and two attempts to steal cars. Stanislav Bogdanov (on the far left in the video) ’ imprisonment for the murder of a magistrate.
As Agentsvo points out, this video alone suggests that at very least two men convicted of grave crimes have ended up freed as the result of Prigozhin’s ‘recruitment’, with the legal grounds for such release quite unclear.
They are not alone in expressing concern. In August this year, five members of the President’s Human Rights Council issued to the Russian Prosecutor General. They noted the widespread reports in the state media about prisoners being sent to fight in Russia’s war against Ukraine (the authors use Putin’s euphemistic ‘special military operation’). They list the only legally available means by which a prisoner who has not served his sentence in full can be released. This is via a presidential pardon; an amnesty established by parliamentary resolution; or early release on parole, with this the subject of a court ruling. In the light of such limited possibilities, they ask for explanation as to the grounds by which the prisoners were released (if the reports are true).
There is nothing to suggest that they have received a response. It is also difficult to see how the Prosecutor General could reply since there are evidently no legal grounds for the men’s release. Yet, even if we assume that the document about a purported ‘pardon’ is a meaningless piece of paper, the men do appear to have been freed.
In , Romanova said that there had been attempts to recruit convicted prisoners to fight Russia’s war against Ukraine since the very beginning of the full-scale invasion. These first attempts had focused on recruiting former police or Rosgvardia officers, etc. and had been unsuccessful. The second ‘wave’ was of prisoners who, due to the length of their sentences, should have had no chance of parole. “These were ethnic Chechens who ended up in a Chechen battalion. How they came to be there, one can only make certain guesses.”
The third wave, Romanova said, began in the summer and involved the Wagner unit. In terms of crimes, only those serving sentences for rape or paedophilia would not be considered. Murder and savage violence were in no way a hindrance, probably quite the contrary (more details here),
Prigozhin recently admitted that he finances the Wagner unit. He has, in fact, been so public about it that some commentators have suggested that he may be aspiring to political power. Whether or not that is the case, what is clear is that the Wagner mercenaries fighting against Ukraine back in 2014 and beyond worked closely with the Russian defence ministry. It is clear that Prigozhin’s visits to Russian prison colonies must be coordinated with, at very least, the prison administration and the FSB,
The men in the 12 October video had all lost limbs, which was presumably why they were returned to Russia. It has long seemed likely that the aim is to avoid any untoward publicity by ensuring that the prisoners are sent to the worst parts of the fighting and are killed there. Another prisoner, sent to Ukraine, was Ivan Neparatov, the leader of a Russian criminal gang, who was serving 25 years for five murders and multiple other crimes. He was killed, though he does appear to have posthumously received a state award ‘for bravery’ from Putin.