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Convicted killers that Putin pardoned and glorifies for fighting Russia’s war against Ukraine teach children about ‘courage’

03.01.2024   
Halya Coynash
Russia’s attempts to justify its war of aggression against Ukraine are not helped by the convicted killers and rapists, and likely war criminals that Putin is labelling Russian ‘heroes’

Wagner mercenary in Bakhmut Photo Valentin Sprinchak, TASS

Wagner mercenary in Bakhmut Photo Valentin Sprinchak, TASS

In his New Year address on 31 December 2023, Russian leader Vladimir Putin addressed not only Russian soldiers but all those whom he claimed to be “on the front line of the struggle for truth and justice” and “our heroes”.   Those whose “courage” the Russian people are purportedly proud of include around 50 thousand convicted criminals, released from prisons and pardoned in exchange for six months of ‘service’ in the notorious Wagner unit, fighting and killing in Ukraine.  The ‘package’ offered such individuals included not only a presidential pardon and freedom, but also substantial pay, by Russian standards.  No mention is, of course, ever made of Russia’s legislation that prohibits being a mercenary.  Nor, at least by the authorities, of the murders, rapes and other crimes that such pardoned criminals have already committed back home in Russia.  The current regime is reportedly ‘encouraging’ silence about such crimes, with courts also clearly understanding to go easy on at least those criminals who have not committed multiple murders.

Around 20% of the 50 thousand prisoners recruited into the Wagner unit from around July 2022 to March 2023 were killed fighting. They include Pavel Shuvalov, more notorious as ‘the Tulun maniac’, who was finally caught and sentenced to 24 years in October 2021 for two murders and 27 violent rapes (including the two murder victims) in Irkutsk oblast.  The publicity this has now received may deter the Kremlin from posthumously awarding Shuvalov for ‘bravery’.  Even that, however, is not guaranteed, as such a posthumous ‘honour’ was awarded to Ivan Neparatov, leader of a Russian criminal gang who had been serving a 25-year sentence for five murders and multiple other crimes when he was released to kill Ukrainians.

Even a 20% death rate leaves around 40 thousand men, some of whom were serving huge sentences for the most violent of crimes, to return home with their slate wiped clean. Even their ‘reputation’ was given state protection with Russia’s draconian legislation to silence protest over its war extended to protect Wagner unit fighters from being ‘discredited’

In October 2023, the Riga-based publication Meduza reported that Russian state and pro-Kremlin media had received instructions from the president’s administration to not publish information about the crimes committed by Russian soldiers or mercenaries, including former prisoners, after they returned from fighting in Ukraine.  This was, the report said, “so that Russians aren’t afraid of them.”   They should try telling that to the criminals’ victims or victims’ families, who have every reason to both fear for their safety if the perpetrator is released, and to feel betrayed at such a travesty of justice. 

There most clearly is reason for concern.  In late December, Verstka Media published a breakdown of the known crimes committed after men released to fight as Wagner mercenaries returned home.  From media publications, they had counted at least 32 violent crimes believed to have been committed by such former prisoners, as well as one in Russian-occupied South Osetia, almost all of which involved murder or rape.  Verstka had also tracked down 150 criminal prosecutions involving former prisoners recruited to fight in Ukraine, with some of the court cases involving up to eight separate offences. They stressed that the real figure was likely to be much higher, and pointed out that the authorities  In such cases the individuals often end up with only fines, community work or a suspended sentence.  This is only not the case where the crimes led to human casualties, although here too Verstka found that this was not always the case.  In general, the authorities, including the courts, try to muffle the fact that the men are former prisoners and Wagner mercenaries.  Formally speaking, this is even correct given that Putin’s pardon means that the men’s slate has been cleared, including their criminal record.  Former offences would normally also be considered as aggravating circumstances in passing sentence, with this one, although probably not the only, reason for sometimes unusually light sentences.

Of the alleged crimes that Verstka uncovered, 83 were for theft or robbery with violence; 27 for road offences, mostly drunken driving; 20 for murder or attempted murder; 11 for grave bodily injury; 5 for rape or violent acts; or other offences.

Verstka found at least four cases where the former prisoner turned Wagner mercenary was accused of murder and a further 10 of grave bodily injury, with this having led to a person’s death in three cases.  In one such case (resulting in death), Mikhail Razuvaev is accused as a person “without a criminal record” although, prior to his ‘serving Russia’s interests’ in Ukraine, he had at least six criminal convictions to his name, with these including rape and other serious violent crimes.

Another former prisoner and fighter, Andrei Alyapkin is currently appealing against an almost 11-year sentence for violent crimes, including causing grievous bodily harm, resulting in the victim’s death.  During the criminal investigation, he asked several times to be released from custody citing, among other things, the fact that he had received ‘state honours’. There is no mention of his criminal past in the court documents, but Wagner recruitment and pardon are the only way of explaining how Alyapkin came to be at liberty to commit new crimes, rather than serving his earlier sentence.

Yegor Kappov was sentenced in September 2023 to seven years harsh-regime imprisonment for attempted murder.  He would have still been serving a sentence for grievous bodily injury resulting in death, had Russia not wanted him to kill Ukrainians for them.

Some of the presidential pardons caused outrage without the criminals being accused of any new crimes.  Nikolai Ogolobyak was due to be released only in 2030 after being sentenced in 2008 as a member of a Satanic cult that killed four teenagers, dismembered and ate parts of their bodies.

Back in the summer of 2022, Wagner unit founder Yevgeny Prigozhin essentially argued that the recruitment of prisoners was good for all, as it meant other Russians would not be sent to fight. It became increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to deny the presidential pardons and, in cases like that of Ogolobyak, Putin’s press secretary tried to justify the pardon. When tackled, that is, since other measures are clearly being applied to minimize publicity around such pardoned criminals. 

It gets worse, however, since Russia is also using such convicted criminals for ‘lessons on courage’ in schools.  Viktor Tsybenko, who was convicted of murder, was deemed fit to teach students about ‘courage’ in October 2023. 

Worth noting that Putin has not only awarded state honours to men like Ivan Neporatov, convicted of violent crimes before their recruitment to fight against Ukraine.  In April 2022, as more and more information was emerging of the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Kyiv oblast, Putin ‘honoured’ the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade, believed to be behind those crimes. The presidential decree talked of “mass heroism and daring, tenacity and courage” in referring to men almost certainly responsible for rapes, torture, indiscriminate killings and looting.  After almost two years of such documented war crimes in Ukraine, as well as new crimes committed by the Russians pardoned for willingness to take part in Russia’s war of aggression, Putin is claiming this to be a “struggle for truth and justice” with rapists, murderers and likely war criminals Russia’s “heroes”.

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