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Russia has taken steps to legalize prisoners of war in Ukraine

Criminals and crime suspects who agree to serve in Russia’s war in Ukraine will be legally granted amnesty.

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has approved legislation that would pardon criminal convicts who volunteer to join Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, a move aimed at boosting troop numbers in the first phase of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

The law sets into law the recruitment of prisoners and criminal suspects for the war in Ukraine, a practice first adopted by Wagner’s mercenary forces last year before Russia’s Defense Ministry took over prison recruitment in early 2023, the Moscow Times reported on Tuesday.

The State Duma said in a statement on Tuesday that the amnesty for fighting on Ukraine’s front lines does not extend to all criminals in Russian prisons: acts of terrorism, sex crimes, espionage and treason are among the most serious crimes exempted.

According to a statement published on the Duma website, “the validity of the document does not extend to those who have previously been convicted of terrorist and extremist activities, as well as crimes against the sexual purity of minors”.

If the law becomes law, the criminal records of those who join the Russian army will be erased when they finish military service, receive a state award for war, are wounded in action or reach the retirement age of 65, the Moscow Times reported.

Suspected criminals also receive a waiver if they agree to serve in Ukraine.

“For suspected criminals who agree to take up arms, authorities can suspend criminal proceedings against them if they face up to five years in prison for premeditated crimes or up to 10 years in prison for negligence. The bill specifies that crimes committed after the law goes into effect will not be expunged,” the Moscow Times reported.

The legislation will next go through a single round of voting in Russia’s upper-house Federation Council, after which Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign it into law, the newspaper said.

Even before the law was passed, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the billionaire owner of the Wagner Group mercenary force, was allowed to hire convicted felons as mercenaries, promising to pardon them if they survived six months of fighting in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Prigogine said 32,000 of his Wagner mercenaries, recruited from prisons, had returned home after serving in the war in Ukraine. In May, Wagner’s boss said about 20,000 of his fighters had been killed in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Due to high-profile tensions between Wagner’s forces and the Russian Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin complained that his access to Russian prisons for recruitment was blocked.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said on Tuesday that Wagner’s forces were trying to recruit new fighters “in light of significant losses in Ukraine”.

“Anti-Russian outlet Verstka reported on June 19 that Wagner recruiters are circulating messages on social media platforms calling for 21- to 35-year-olds with a ‘gaming background’ to join Wagner as UAV specialists,” ISW said.

“Varstka noted that these recruits do not need any military experience,” the institute said.

According to Ukrainian military officials, Ukrainian forces are making steady, incremental progress in an ongoing counterattack, and Russian troops are resisting heavily behind fortified positions and minefields.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malier said on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces were advancing but the operation would not be a quick offensive with “movie” success.

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