The head of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group said that a first group of prisoners whom it 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 military.
The Russian state news agency RIA published a video showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, the country’s largest mercenary company, congratulating about two dozen men for completing their military contracts. In another segment of the video, Mr. Prigozhin refers to a group as convicts who had earned their freedom after military service.
“You have finished your contract with dignity,” Mr. Prigozhin is shown telling the first group of men. To another group, he says: “Don’t drink too much, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women.”
“We will come back to finish what we started,” one of the men responds, in apparent reference to Ukraine.
In another video from the same scene that was posted on social media, Mr. Prigozhin said that all pardoned men will receive medals and amnesty papers in “two, three days.”
Russia Behind Bars, the country’s main prisoner rights organization, said that 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 Mr. Prigozhin’s drive to recruit prisoners to fight alongside Moscow’s 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 Mr. Prigozhin’s claim.
If the pardons are real, the human rights lawyer Dmitri Zakhvatov wrote on the messaging app Telegram, “it fully demonstrates Russian Federation’s officials attitude to justice and state.”
Mr. 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 traveled by helicopter to Russia’s remote penal colonies to give rousing speeches to inmates, according to videos posted on social media and accounts from prison rights activists.
In exchange for military service, he has promised inmates high salaries, financial bonuses, death and incapacity payouts and, perhaps most importantly for some, freedom after six months of service.
RIA’s video was published about six months after the first reports of Wagner’s prisoner recruitment drive. Russia Behind Bars said that it was aware of at least one prisoner who returned home this week after serving in Ukraine.
The reports of pardons come as Wagner struggles to recruit new inmates amid growing reports of high mortality rates for frontline Russian soldiers and of inconsistent payments by the company, according to Wagner deserters and human rights activists.
Since June, Wagner has signed up at least 35,000 prisoners for service, according to Russia Behind Bars. The organization’s estimate, which represents nearly 10 percent of Russia’s prewar male prison population, is based on reports from sources in Russian penal colonies and could not be independently verified.