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‘The military takes almost everyone’ Russia is offering criminal suspects a choice: face trial or go fight in Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Alexander Vilf / Sputnik / Profimedia

Since the beginning of the full-scale war against Ukraine, Russian convicts have been heading to the front to fight — first, as part of private military companies such as Wagner Group, then, directly under Russia’s Defense Ministry. Now, journalists from BBC News Russian have found evidence that the Defense Ministry is recruiting suspects who haven’t even been convicted yet, in exchange for suspending the criminal case against them. Meduza summarizes the outlet’s findings.

In an effort to bolster the ranks of its military for the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia is actively recruiting criminal suspects and defendants who have not yet been convicted, BBC News Russian journalists have found. Some are being recruited in the middle of their court cases.

“Only those accused of terrorism, treason, sabotage, especially serious crimes, and certain sexual offenses are not being taken to the war right now,” one investigator told journalists. “All others are quickly drafted for the special military operation.”

In the summer of 2023, the Russian State Duma passed a law allowing people under investigation to avoid criminal liability if they sign a contract for military service. Journalists found evidence of criminal suspects being recruited in Russia’s Moscow, Yaroslavl, Belgorod, Tambov, and Kemerovo regions, as well as in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Republic of Udmurtia, and the Republic of Karelia.

First, investigators inform defendants and suspects that they can choose to go to the front instead of facing legal proceedings. Then, if the person agrees to join the army and the military is willing to accept the candidate, the responsible unit commander requests that the investigation be suspended.

“From there, everything happens quickly,” the investigator explained to BBC News Russian. “Within three days of signing the contract with the army, the criminal case is suspended. The person goes home to pack their things. And within another two to three days, they’re taken to the war. We already have three people who left this way.”

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Journalists found several cases where defendants went to war instead of continuing to face trial as early as 2022, before the relevant legislation was enacted. Back then, they were recruited not into the army but into the Wagner Group mercenary organization and some volunteer units. Until June 2023, Russian convicts received pardons before being sent to Ukraine, effectively gaining their freedom after six months of service in the combat zone.

If a suspect signs a contract with the military, he won’t be released from it until the end of the war. His criminal case will be permanently closed if he dies, receives a state award, or is discharged from the army for health reasons.

However, BBC News Russian notes that if a suspect goes to war after the investigation is complete but before the verdict in rendered, his case will not be closed — in effect, he only receives a postponement of the trial. Journalists found several instances where the legal proceedings against individuals who returned from the war were resumed.

Several lawyers told journalists that the people who sign contracts with the Russian army are usually those who need to pay off loans and “see no other opportunities in life.”

The procedure for “selecting candidates in correctional institutions and pre-trial detention centers” was established in July 2023 by a joint order from the Russian Defense Ministry, Justice Ministry, and Interior Ministry. (Journalists found excerpts from this order in two court decisions.) This document stipulates that prisons and pre-trial detention centers regularly send lists of their inmates to military enlistment offices, which then review the lists and assess suitable candidates through “group and one-on-one informational and screening sessions.”

Journalists also noted that local authorities have set quotas for sending a certain number of people to the war, which they fulfill partly by recruiting individuals in pre-trial detention centers. The law passed in 2023 only applied to those charged with low- or medium-severity offenses, with a maximum possible prison sentence of five years. According to BBC News Russian, these restrictions were lifted in March 2024, and now almost anyone can be sent to the front. (There is still a small list of specific crimes that disqualify the accused from joining the army.)

According to an anonymous employee of a pre-trial detention center in Russia’s Vologda region, “the military takes almost everyone, except those who are deemed completely medically unfit.”

criminals at war

The worst of the worst Russia’s Defense Ministry is recruiting prisoners whose crimes would have disqualified them from Wagner Group

criminals at war

The worst of the worst Russia’s Defense Ministry is recruiting prisoners whose crimes would have disqualified them from Wagner Group

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