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Russia: From convict to hero via Ukraine?

Irina Chevtayeva
July 15, 2023

In Russia, former prisoners are returning to their hometowns after being freed to fight in Ukraine. Their victims are living in fear.

Wagner group soldier stands in front of rubble
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, about 65,000 detainees have been recruited from prisonsImage: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS/IMAGO

"It is like being in hell," said Oskana Pechteleva. In January 2020, Pechteleva's 23-year-old daughter Vera, from Kemerovo in western Siberia, was brutally slain by her ex-boyfriend Vladislav Kanyus.

Kanyus inflicted more than 100 injuries on the young woman, and he was ultimately sentenced to 17 years in prison for her death. The police officers who took hours to respond after Vera's neighbors called the station were handed suspended sentences.

"Police officers ignored seven calls made to the 112 emergency hotline," tweeted Russian blogger Andre Filippov65.

Vera's neighbors eventually broke the door down with a crowbar before the police arrived, the blogger wrote.

"Vera Pechteleva lay in a pool of blood and Vladislav Kanyus, her former lover, stood on top of her up to his elbows in blood," the tweet continued.

Vera's family had called for a harsher punishment. Her mother, Oksana, has accused the court of failing to consider rape and kidnapping as part of the case, or the fact that the murderer stabbed his victim with a knife. The family launched an appeal that never made it court. The prisoner could not be found, they were told.

Later, Vera's relatives found pictures on social media of Kanyus in military uniform with a weapon. They believe he has been freed and is fighting in Ukraine.

'It is a nightmare'

Grieving for their loved ones or themselves facing the threat of physical violence, the relatives of victims like Vera Pechteleva often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Russian psychologist Yekaterina Isupova.

"They react with fear, helplessness and horror. When the perpetrators end up in jail, the victims experience some relief and hope that the horror has ended. But if they find out that the attacker is coming back and will possibly be out in public again, then there is fear," she said.

This feeling of helplessness is a major injustice, she added.

Yekaterina Isupova stands in front of wood panel background
Yekaterina Isupova is bringing attention to the plight of victims

It is precisely these feelings that Oksana Pechteleva knows well. "Fear, pain, and incomprehension — it is a nightmare," she said.

She also worries for her own safety, and has no desire to run into her daughter's murderer after his possible service in Ukraine.

Some 50,000 prisoners have been recruited for the Wagner mercenary group since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine along with another 15,000 by the Defense Ministry, according to Olga Romanova, the head of the Russia Behind Bars NGO, who is living in exile in Germany.

"Presumably, it was mainly serious criminals who were serving 10 years or more who went to war," one Russian lawyer said on condition of anonymity. "There are no statistics, but anyone who has already done five or six years behind bars is more likely to be paroled and therefore less likely to risk their life."

Alyona Popova sits in front of a set of doors
Activist Alyona Popova has been placed on a list of foreign agentsImage: DW

Well-known for her campaign against domestic violence in Russia, Alyona Popova has been placed on a list of "foreign agents" by Russia's Justice Ministry. Nobody knows how many convicted murderers have been released to fight in Ukraine, Popova said.

"Murderers are being set free. Instead of having to serve out their full sentence, they are allowed to kill even more," said the human rights activist.

From killer to 'hero'

Back in January, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin met with a group of inmates. After six months of service in Ukraine, they were being allowed to return home with the rest of their sentences waived.

Among them were two men convicted of murder. One was Pavel Sakharov from the Karelia region. In 2015, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the brutal murder of a pensioner. But in January 2023, he returned home. According to media reports, he was one of the first to be pardoned by a secret decree from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Presumably, Denis Kinyev from the Leningrad region, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for robbery and murder in 2011, was pardoned along with Sakharov.

What's the role of private armies in Russia?

Not all prisoners are returning from the war alive, however. In November 2019, Eduard Jar from the village of Karaul in the Krasnoyarsk region was sentenced to eight years for murdering a woman. He had drunkenly hit her three times with a shovel, stabbed her four times with a knife and kicked her three times in the face and upper body. Afterwards he left her apartment, threw the knife away and went home, according to his testimony.

In November 2022, Jar joined the Wagner Group. A few months later, in February 2023, he died near the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Local authorities in his home village described him as a "hero" in his obituary: "He went out to fight against neo-Nazis and therefore became a real hero and true patriot to everyone living in our region."

Private armies absolutely illegal, expert says

Human rights activist Romanova said there is no law in Russia allowing for mercenaries or private armies.

"That's why these 50,000 Wagner soldiers are absolutely illegal, as are the pardons. One crime can't cover up another," she said.

Moreover, the state cannot simply designate members of private armies as "volunteers" and protect them. But this is exactly what the law against "discrediting" the army and volunteers like the Wagner troops does, said Romanova, adding that people cannot criticize the criminals fighting in the war without facing up to 15 years in prison.

Olga Romanova wearing black hoodie sits in front of bookshelves
Activist Olga Romanova had to leave Russia and go into exileImage: DW

But former prisoners aren't just found in Russian private armies. Since February 1, prisoners in Russia with uncompleted sentences can be signed by the army on service contracts. And at the end of June, Putin signed a law allowing their conscription. The law applies to people who are under suspicion of or charged with crimes and face a prison sentence of five years or less.

According to Romanova, the new law allows people facing punishment for minor and moderate crimes to be mobilized for the war.

"A person is arrested, a criminal case is opened, and after that the person agrees to go to war and the criminal case is closed," she said.

This article was originally published in Russian.