Russia: Convicts reportedly pardoned by Wagner group
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Despite its status as an illegal organisation under Russian law, public criticism of the Wagner Group has now become a crime punishable by up to 15 years. Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, is set to amend a law that reprimands dissent only against the Russian Armed Forces after Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin complained that it was impossible to prosecute people who “discredited” his fighters.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the Duma, said that the new amendments would mean punishment will be “severe”.
The main targets of these reprimands will be those who “publicly disseminate knowingly false information about the [Armed] Forces”, as well as voluntary military organisations such as the Wagner group, according to the chairman.
Writing on Telegram, Volodin said: “This initiative will protect everyone who today is risking their lives to ensure the security of the country and our citizens … The punishment for violators will be severe.”
The punishment envisages fines of up to ₽5m (about £55,000), correctional or forced labour for up to five years, as well as imprisonment of up to 15 years.
Private military companies such as the Wagner Group are illegal under Russian law. Prigozhin’s outfit has been accused of war crimes in multiple countries across the world, including Syria and Ukraine.
Pirgozhin himself has been hiring fighters directly out of Russian prisons with no care for the severity of the crimes for which the recruits are serving time. Footage last year showed him addressing a crowd of inmates, telling them that he is willing to hire rapists and murderers.
The fighters are being hired on a six-month contract on the promise that if they fulfil their term, they will be given a Presidential pardon and freed from incarceration.
As the first ex-prisoners returned home after fighting for the Wagner Group for six months, reports soon emerged that the Russian public was fearful and unhappy about thousands of convicts being released back into society.
Roughly 80 percent, which amounts to 40,000 fighters, of the Wagner Group were recruited from prison.
But Prigozhin is rumoured to have a direct line to Vladimir Putin, having served as his caterer for several years in the 2000s, and enjoys untoward political influence given he is a mercenary commander.
Notwithstanding its illegal status, the group has been allowed to open an office in Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg and has been praised by state television and pro-Kremlin officials for its work in Ukraine.
The new move to criminalise dissent against the group is the latest step in its attempts to gain legitimacy.
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More than 5,800 criminal cases have been opened in Russia against people for discrediting the armed forces over the past year, according to the OVD-Info rights group.
Kremlin critics such as Ilya Yashin have been imprisoned for up to eight and a half years for comments condemning Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
Ironically, however, the Wagner Group, most notably Prigozhin himself, is one of the most vocal critics of the war effort.
He was embroiled last month in a bitter row with defence chiefs, accusing them of deliberately depriving Wagner of munitions. He said a failure to supply shells to his fighters in eastern Ukraine was an act of treason.
The dispute was the most serious case of in-fighting in Russia since the start of the war, but the new law indicates that the Wagner leader has powerful government allies.
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