Will Putin really pardon thousands of prisoners?

Sunday, 12 February 2023 (02:41 IST)
Reports about the recruitment of prisoners in Russian prisons for the war against Ukraine first surfaced in July 2022. By September, the practice was common knowledge. Staff employed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who runs the notorious Wagner Group mercenaries, carry out the recruitments. The Wagner private security company is considered to be President Vladimir Putin's "shadow army."
In return for six months of service, the prisoners are promised a pardon. The Russian parliament has not declared any such amnesty, however. A presidential decree signed by Putin is the only way prisoners can be pardoned in exchange for joining the war, according to lawyers.
The number of early pardons declined after Putin came to power in 1999. During his last two terms, only a few people per year were released early from prison thanks to a pardon — in 2021, the Kremlin reported six such cases.
If Prigozhin has his way, the Russian head of state would have to pardon several thousand prisoners within a few months.
How many fighters were recruited?
The Kremlin has declined to comment. "I can't say anything about that," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov  told journalists in late January. "You know that there are open decrees and others with different levels of secrecy — I can't reveal anything about the latter." All pardons will be carried out according to Russian law, he added.
Mediazona, a Russian web newspaper that works from exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Tbilisi, Georgia, examined Russian prison service data and found that the number of Russian prisoners dropped by 23,000 from September to October 2022, apparently due to recruitment. Olga Romanova, founder of the Russia Behind Bars human rights organization, reports similar figures. According to US intelligence estimates, as many as 40,000 prisoners were participating in the war in Ukraine as Wagner Group fighters in December 2022.
The number of inmates in prisons did not drop in October, according to Mediazona. From November to January, there were again 6,000 fewer, which is however in accordance with trends seen in previous years. Using the same data, the British Defense Ministry, too, concluded that the scale of prisoner recruitment has decreased significantly.
Pardoned even before heading out to battle?
The internet has plenty of videos of released prisoners, published by Prigozhin's press service — but mention of an official document has only been made once, in an October 2022 video that shows four men allegedly being honored for their courage in a hospital in Luhansk, handed certificates of their release and "full pardon." One such document states that the person in question is being released "by pardon decree of the President of the Russian Federation." The document does not have a decree number, but the date is revealing: President Putin signed it on July 6, 2022, likely before the prisoners were sent to the front.
DW examined the 2022 list of Russian presidential decrees. They are numbered in order with the numbers of secret decrees missing, which makes it possible to determine how many secret decrees there were. Between July 5 and 8, when Putin appeared to have pardoned the prisoners in the aforementioned video, four secret decrees were signed. Theoretically, each of them can cover an unlimited number of people.
Former Wagner mercenary reports
Andrei Medvedev, ex-commander of a Wagner unit, fled to Norway in January, where he testified about how prisoners receive pardon certificates.
"I know that when they arrive at the assembly point, they sign contracts and receive an application form for a pardon in absentia even before they go into combat," he told The Insider newspaper, adding that possibly the move is meant to convince them that they will not be lied to about their pardon. Another escaped prisoner anonymously told Mediazona that while still in prison, inmates are given an application for a pardon to sign. Applications are processed before the men are sent to the front, the anonymous source said.
Will the recruits really be freed?
There is no reliable proof that prisoners do return from the war after six months of service in the Wagner Group and are released without any obligations. Almost all the convicts in the videos on the internet said they did plan to return home but would rejoin the Wagner mercenaries and return to the front.
The recruited prisoners are not really free even if they are released to freedom after their combat mission, according to Jana Gelmel, a Russian lawyer who advocates for prisoners' rights. Many are pressured not to leave the Wagner private military group after the deadline, she said. "Wagner keeps them because they're all kind of dependent, on the Department of Corrections and on Prigozhin," she argued. Many inmates returning from the war know they could end up back in prison if they refuse demands from the Wagner group, she added.
'No crimes, no punishment'
Human rights activists warn of a dangerous development that further undermines Russia's justice system. Among those pardoned, they say, are convicted murderers, armed robbers and members of organized crime gangs. Many faced long prison terms, and have hardly even served half of their sentences, they warn.
Basically, there are no crimes, and there is no punishment at this point, warns Olga Romanova of Russia Behind Bars. "Everything is allowed now, and that has very far-reaching consequences for a country."

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