The head of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group said a first batch of prisoners he recruited to fight in Ukraine have completed their service and been pardoned, state media reported on Thursday. Human rights groups said the move highlights the Kremlin’s extralegal use of prisoners to replenish its decimated army.
The Russian state news agency RIA posted a video showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, the country’s largest mercenary company, congratulating some two dozen men on completing their military contracts. In another segment of the video, Mr. Prigozhin refers to a group of convicts who earned their freedom after military service.
“You have terminated your contract with dignity,” Mr. Prigozhin is shown telling the first group of men. To another group he tells: “Don’t drink too much, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women.”
“We will be back to finish what we started,” replies one of the men, apparently referring to Ukraine.
In another video of the same scene that was posted on social mediaMr. Prigozhin said that all pardoned men will receive medals and amnesty documents in “two, three days”.
Russia Behind Bars, the country’s main prisoners’ rights organization, said it was unclear what legal mechanism was used to free the men, adding to what they say is a long list of legal violations in the campaign Prigozhin to recruit prisoners to fight alongside Moscow. forces in Ukraine.
Under the Russian Constitution, only the president can pardon a prisoner. The Kremlin did not publish any pardon decrees this week, and its press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Prigozhin’s claim.
If the pardons are real, human rights lawyer Dmitri Zakhvatov wrote in the messaging app Telegram, “fully demonstrates the attitude of officials of the Russian Federation towards justice and the state”.
Prigozhin, who once served a prison sentence for robbery, has masterminded the effort to recruit prisoners for President Vladimir V. Putin’s faltering war in Ukraine. He has often flown by helicopter to Russia’s remote penal colonies to give moving speeches to inmates, according to videos posted on social media and accounts of prison rights activists.
In exchange for military service, he has promised inmates high salaries, financial bonuses, death and disability payments and, perhaps most important to some, freedom after six months of service.
The RIA video was published some six months after the first reports about Wagner’s prisoner recruitment campaign. Russia Behind Bars said it was aware of at least one inmate who returned home this week after serving in Ukraine.
The reports of pardons come as Wagner struggles to recruit new inmates amid mounting reports of high death rates for Russian front-line soldiers and inconsistent payments by the company, according to Wagner defectors and human rights activists.
Since June, Wagner has signed up at least 35,000 prisoners for the service, according to Russia Behind Bars. The organization’s estimate, which represents nearly 10 percent of Russia’s pre-war male prison population, is based on reports from sources in Russian penal colonies and could not be independently verified.