‘They’re not counting on people making it home’ How a prisoner’s wife thwarted the Wagner Group's attempt to send inmates to fight in Ukraine
In early July 2022, reports began to circulate that the Wagner private military company was recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in the war against Ukraine. The recruitment campaign quickly gained momentum and, according to the investigative outlet Verstka and the rights group Russia Behind Bars, Wagner representatives had visited 21 Russian penal colonies in 13 different regions by mid-August. Recruiters offered inmates up to 200,000 rubles ($3,341) and amnesty in exchange for going to the front for six months. In most penal colonies, according to Verstka, about 20 percent of convicts accepted Wagner’s offer. In one, though, the recruiters were met with unexpected resistance when the wife of one inmate filed six complaints with various authorities demanding they explain the scheme’s legality. The local division of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) ultimately sent a team to investigate.
Irina’s husband is an inmate at a penal colony (her name has been changed for safety reasons). In mid-August, he told her that representatives from the Wagner private military company (PMC) had paid a visit to him and his fellow inmates. The spokesmen offered a scrubbed criminal record to anyone willing to go fight in the war against Ukraine. At first, Irina found the offer compelling, but after giving it some thought, she decided to do some research into the mercenary group.
I found the demands they make of their soldiers. The list included a clean criminal record. Naturally, that’s the first thing that surprised me. Then I came across an interview with a former Wagner fighter who said they don’t care about the lives of normal fighters; what does that say about how they treat inmates? The same guy also said in the interview that every third Wagner fighter ends up as “cargo 200.” After that, I started to worry.
Irina feared for her husband’s life and safety, but she also worried that the Wagner offer was a scam and that he would find himself back in prison after his contract expired; based on what she read, the Wagner PMG didn’t have the right to hire inmates. The next day, she got in touch with her husband’s former lawyer to find out whether Wagner's recruitment campaign had any legal basis. The lawyer confirmed her fears, telling her the whole process was unlawful:
He advised me to write a series of complaints to multiple organizations at once. I contacted the presidential administration, the local division of the FSIN, the regional prosecutor’s office, the Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), and the Human Rights Commissioner’s office. I also wrote a separate letter to the Presidential Human Rights Council.
In her complaint letters, Irina pointed out that there were currently no legal grounds on which her husband could leave the prison. She asked the authorities not to allow him to be illegally sent to the front.
Several days later, the chairman of the local ONK contacted Irina to tell her his office would conduct an investigation.
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Three days later, Irina got a call from her husband. He told her that a team consisting of a prison official, an FSIN employee, and an ONK member had visited the prison. After their investigation, he had been notified that he would not be allowed to go to the front.
Though Irina never received any official responses to her complaints, she believes her mission to stop the illegal recruitment of inmates was a success. She also said that if the recruitment process had been more transparent and hadn’t given her so much cause to doubt that her husband would survive, she would have supported his decision.
If they had said that this would be a contract with the Defense Minister and was part of a legal government initiative, we would have agreed and he would have gone. Our refusal was only because the entire pursuit was absolutely illegal. Evidently, they’re not counting on people making it home right now. But some people do come back. It’s not possible for a thousand people to go there and all be killed. That just doesn’t happen.