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Russian inmates who were yanked out of prison to fight in Ukraine have begun receiving their promised “‘pardons” for taking part in the war—but legal experts say the supposed pardons are actually bogus.
The news comes as Russia’s war effort grew increasingly deranged this week as the prison-recruiting tactic apparently became the official new modus operandi. The Wagner Group, a private military force linked to the Kremlin and run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, had for weeks been visiting prisons across Russia to lure convicted murders, robbers, and even a cannibal to join the war against Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry, after taking heat for a series of battlefield defeats in recent weeks, then decided to throw their hat in the ring and create their own “special forces unit” made up of inmates from some of the same prisons Wagner had targeted, according to the investigative outlet iStories.
The new unit, called “Storm,” is said to offer inmates the same conditions as Wagner: a six-month contract, payment, and a pardon.
But propaganda footage shared by a media group linked to Wagner founder Prigozhin has sparked suspicions that the pardons may not be entirely legit. In the video released by RIA FAN, several freed inmates are seen receiving medals for their military service.
At least three of the four pictured in a Luhansk hospital are missing parts of their limbs.
РИА ФАН, которое считают связанным с Евгением Пригожиным, опубликовало видео, на котором заключенным, которые воевали в ЧВК Вагнера, получают помилование. СМИ пишут, что один из них ранее был осужден на 23 года за убийство судьи pic.twitter.com/v6KnahcTlB
— ROMB (@romb_news) October 12, 2022
“With soldier's blood and soldier’s sweat, you earned this pardon. Nobody gave it to you, nobody brought it. You earned it yourself. Precisely for participation in battles and displaying heroism,” a man off-camera can be heard telling the men.
The men look less than enthused as they are presented with what is described as a certificate of achievement from the Russian Defense Ministry, a commemorative Wagner token, and certificates confirming their pardons.
Stanislav Bogdanov, one of the men interviewed in the propaganda video, proudly noted that he was “grateful” to Wagner for helping him find his purpose in life.
“Maybe I was created for something else, and not just to serve a sentence and sit there all my life,” he said.
Bogdanov admitted that he had no military experience prior to enlisting with Wagner. But he was exactly the kind of recruit Prigozhin had reportedly sought out: a convicted murderer (found guilty of murder with “extreme brutality.”)
Bogdanov bludgeoned a judge to death in 2012 using an iron poker and dumbbells. He was sentenced to 23 years in a maximum security prison, and had served only 10 of them when Wagner recruiters released him to help kill civilians in Ukraine.
Now having avoided serving the remaining 13 years, Bogdanov told the propaganda outlet he feels like he’s been given a “second” shot at life.
But it appears he and the other inmates may have been duped.
“Some nobody is handing the convicts papers and medals, telling [two of them] that these are pardon certificates. And the [others] that these are certificates of release. But they look like worthless scraps of paper with somebody’s stamp,” said Olga Romanova, the head of Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), a human rights group that works closely with inmates.
Romanova noted in a statement on Telegram on Wednesday that the process for issuing pardons is much more complicated than just handing out pieces of paper.
“Only the president can pardon, and this procedure is complicated and begins with the pardon commissions of regional public chambers... Regional public chambers have not not considered anything, no petitions for clemency. So what kind of papers are being handed to the convicts–who knows,” she wrote.
Gulagu.net, another human rights group specializing in the treatment of prison inmates, called the propaganda video proof of “the merging of the mafia and the Russian state” and noted that the pardons were apparently “backdated.”