Putin’s decrees were issued secretly both to legally release the prisoners and to avoid the public disclosure of their names, which would normally occur in the issuing of a presidential pardon, said Eva Merkacheva, the member of the Human Rights Council, which is a consultative body. set up by Putin in the early 2000s that was recently reorganized to expel critical voices of the Kremlin.
“All these decrees are secret, and we can’t see them, but this explains why the Federal Penitentiary Service calmly released people,” Merkacheva told state news agency RIA Novosti. “The presidential decree on pardoning convicts who took part in the special operation constitutes a state secret as it allows identifying these people.”
The convicts were apparently sent to some of the most dangerous hot spots on the front line, and many were killed. About two dozen of them, initially recruited by the Wagner mercenary group in circumvention of Russian law, have now returned home but will probably return to the front in a matter of weeks, according to Russia Behind Bars, a prisoners’ rights group.
The two dozen convicts who survived six months of intense fighting were part of the first recruitment wave of an estimated several hundred, an effort that has been led by Wagner and the group’s financier, St. Petersburg business executive Yevgeniy Prigozhin, since last summer.
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Citing convicts’ family members, Merkacheva said the pardons were signed in early July, around the same time the first men who accepted mercenary contracts were being transported to Ukraine.
When asked to confirm the secret pardons, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to give a direct answer, telling reporters: “You know that a pardon can only be carried out by presidential decree … in strict accordance with the law.”
Prigozhin, a former convict himself, personally toured several Russian prison colonies last year, offering recruits lucrative salaries and dangling pardons on the condition that they serve — and survive — half a year as part of shock troops, infantry units that are tasked with leading offensives. and usually suffer heavy casualties. Recruits were often sent into battle with poor gear and little to no training.
The prisoners served as reinforcements for the initial Russian force in Ukraine, which was depleted in a string of early combat failures.
The United States estimates that Wagner now has 50,000 troops deployed in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts recruited from prisons. That assessment matches data collected by Russia Behind Bars, which is tracking the prisoners’ involvement in the war.
Russia Behind Bars and other rights groups were alarmed by both the moral and legal implications of Moscow tapping into such an unorthodox reserve of workers. In many cases, it meant handing high-powered weapons to prisoners accused of violent crimes who had spent years in a brutal Russian penitentiary system — creating a security risk and a greater danger of battlefield atrocities in Ukraine, the advocacy groups said.
Moreover, they said, deploying convicts without any legal basis made a mockery of the justice system.
As mercenary service remains officially illegal in Russia, it was unclear that there were any guarantees that the fighters would receive what was promised to them.
The former inmates’ vulnerable position also apparently allowed Wagner to engage in extrajudicial executions of convicts who violated a set of rules laid down by Prigozhin, which banned alcohol and drugs and mandated capital punishment for desertion.
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Despite their newfound freedom, the prisoners will probably return to Ukraine after a few weeks’ rest.
“They were all given ‘dumb phones,'” said Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars. “After 45 days, it will ring, and they will be called back.” Romanova added: “They all signed renewal contracts. Those who did not sign perished on the front line.”
Romanova said that the fighters had no choice but to sign and that the ex-convicts were promised that Wagner would not use them as shock troops anymore but would instead assign them to an undisclosed special unit tasked with tracking Ukrainian “sabotage and reconnaissance groups.”
“The decree may be secret, so it appears they are secretly being pardoned in bulk before they are taken from prisons,” Romanova said, adding that the secrecy of these orders may complicate the pardon process as convicts technically cannot show the decree to the police or corrections officers.
“This is a lousy piece of paper, as without the presidential decree itself, this cannot work, and no one has seen it,” she said. “But now, of course, everything is possible.”
Last week, RIA Novosti published a video showing Prigozhin congratulating two dozen convicts on completing their contracts.
“You have finished your contract with honor and dignity,” he can be heard saying in the video. “Don’t drink too much, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women.”
In the video, Prigozhin then asks the men about their plans for the near future. “To come back and finish what we started,” the group responds in unison.
In another video, released last week by the Prigozhin-affiliated website RIA Fan, the mercenary chief is seen promising medals and pardons to another group of several dozen wounded Wagner fighters recovering in the Black Sea resort town of Anapa. In the clip, several fighters thank Prigozhin for “changing their lives” and say they aim to return to the Wagner company.
“If you are alive and well, everything is in order, legs and arms are in place: You either return to us, or go home, but don’t make trouble,” Prigozhin said. “The police should treat you with respect. There is a pardon, a paper, gratitude from the head of the republic and a medal ‘for courage.’ There are no exceptions yet…those who can be considered one are not with us here.”
Russian-language news outlet Agentstvo identified several of the fighters in the video, most of whom have served time for murder, robbery or fraud. Among them was Dmitry Karyagin, who killed his 87-year-old grandmother, a war veteran, and stole the money she received from selling her apartment, Agentsvo reported.
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Wagner has emerged as a key fighting force in Ukraine. It was credited with critical strategic wins over the summer and openly praised by Russian state media, putting an end to the years-long open secret of the group’s very existence.
Most recently, Wagner forces claimed to capture territory near the town of Soledar in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine. Russian military commentators and Prigozhin have promoted this feat in anticipation that Wagner’s forces may soon capture the nearby city of Bakhmut.
On Monday, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, visited troops fighting to defend these two cities and said Wagner’s successes were exaggerated.
“The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar in different directions,” Syrsky said, adding: “The enemy suffered significant losses and once again retreated.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in a recent report that Prigozhin “will continue to use both confirmed and fabricated Wagner Group success in Soledar and Bakhmut to promote the Wagner Group as the only Russian force in Ukraine capable of securing tangible gains.”