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Who are the violent prisoners being offered pardons for fighting with the Wagner Group in Ukraine?

“After six months you can go home and get a pardon. You cannot return to prison.

You have five minutes to make your decision.

Although the footage is blurry, it clearly captures an offer to hundreds of Russian prisoners gathered in this Russian prison yard. To survive six months fighting in Ukraine with the Wagner Group – and then return home a free man.

It was September 2022. Evgeny Privozhin, the leader of the mercenary forces, confirms the group’s first ever prisoner recruitment strategy. According to estimates, the scheme could see up to 50,000 Ukrainian prisoners fighting in Ukraine for their cause.


Videos of returned fighters have begun to emerge seven months after the prison recruit drive. Some are uncomfortable with the new status of war veterans, which has seen violent criminals apparently being released by presidential decree.

Sky News uses social media and court records to reveal what Wagner’s prisoner recruiting scheme was and the stories of violent offenders whose service earned them military hero status.

Warning: This article contains descriptions about serious violence, including domestic abuse.

One man said, “I’m just grateful they gave me this opportunity.”

“You are not fighting for anything. You’re fighting for your children, and your families, and for money.

In a January video, published by the RIA FAN news agency and affiliated with Prigozhin, the man is one of many former prisoners who express their gratitude to Wagner Group.

Since 5 January, at least four reports have been posted on the platform detailing the return of penal colony soldiers who served in Ukraine with the Mercenary Force.

Verstka, a Russian independent media outlet, identified the man as Kirill Neglin of Segheza in Russia’s far north.

Image: This photo is from Neglin’s VK page. This picture was taken from Neglin’s VK page. It was published some years before he was jailed.

Neglin can be seen posing with a child and a woman on his social media pages. His profile description states: “I LOVE MY FAMILY.”

However, court documents paint a darker picture of the self-described family man.

Prior to joining Wagner, Neglin was in a 12-year sentence on charges including domestic abuse. He had been involved in two assaults that left his wife with life-threatening injuries.

His wife told the court how Neglin threatened her to kill her in the incident. This warning was repeated by Neglin during the trial.

He said, “As long the court will measure me term, so much she still has to live,”

His wife, who was a lawyer, described him as a “bully” and shared their childhood memories. After they were married, their relationship was stable until Neglin started drinking.

According to his wife’s testimony Neglin had consumed half a bottle vodka before he became aggressive and started beating her, while their child was at home. He refused to stop, she said.

After the attack was over she called her mother for help and finally went to his mother in law’s rural home known as a “dacha” in Russia.

Image This picture was uploaded to Neglin’s VK Page some years before he was jailed

Neglin followed her and threatened her life when she asked him for safety.

She testified that he beat her once more, and then rubbed on her shoes. Later, she was admitted to hospital. Doctors determined that her injuries were so severe that they had to remove her spleen.

The trial was a trial in which Neglin’s wife first retracted her testimony, but later confirmed it. She described how she was afraid that Neglin would “just kill” her next time.

For the crime, he was sentenced to five and three months. He was also convicted of attempted drug trafficking.

Neglin is one of many former prisoners who are reported to have returned home to Russia after signing a contract to Wagner.

Russia Behind Bars, a prisoner rights group, estimates that around 200 prisoners were recruited under the Wagner Group’s scheme.

This number is not large compared to the number of recruits. Many thousands of soldiers are believed to have died on the battlefield, or are missing.

Image A Wagner Group cemetery in Krasnodar (Russia).

However, those who survive are said to be granted official documentation which exonerates them from their sentence. The theory is that thousands of convicts could be pardoned as they reach the end their six-month-long agreement.

What are our knowledge about pardon agreements?

Details of this arrangement are not known.

Russia’s parliament has not declared any amnesty for prisoners recruits. The only way they can be released is by the president. These are rare, and only six were issued by the Kremlin in 2021.

The arrangement was not disclosed by the authorities.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for the Kremlin, confirmed in January that pardons are classified.

He told journalists, “But I can confirm the whole pardon procedure strictly adheres Russian laws.”

However, RIA FAN published a video in October 2022 that shows us a glimpse at the documentation it claimed was given to prisoners who served with Wagner.

It provides wounded soldiers with a bravery medal, a sign of their injury, and a letter from Defence Ministry.

Image The screenshot was taken from a video that RIA FAN published in October of last year

One certificate, signed by President Vladimir Putin, appears to confirm that a Medal of Honour was received for one of these fighters.

Another document is captured in this screenshot.

Image Another screenshot taken from the same RIA FAN footage shows details about another document

Because most of the text is obscured, it’s hard to see. It does state that the recipient will be pardoned according to “Decrees of the President”.

These dates indicate that the person was released from prison on 6 July 2022, which is before they fled to fight in Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s website lists a list of presidential decrees. This seems to confirm Mr Peskov’s comments. There are no publicly available decrees concerning the pardoning of prisoners at this time.

Both secret and public decrees can be numbered the same way. The public decrees are listed online in a sequential order. This allows you to identify gaps in the list and determine when secret decrees were issued.

According to the website, four secret decrees were signed between 5 July and 8 July.

Sky News could not independently verify the authenticity of the video documents.

Mixed reception

The clip also discloses the identity of another former prisoner, Stanislav Bogdanov, whose case reveals how the return of these convicts-turned-soldiers may be dividing public opinion.

The injured fighter spoke to RIA FAN about Wagner’s “second life”.

Image: Bogdanov is shown in the RIAFAN news report to the left. The right photo is from Bogdanov’s social media accounts before his imprisonment.

Bogdanov was serving a 23 year sentence for murder with special cruelty and robbery. He was convicted in 2012 after beating a death row judge.

According to court documents, Sergei Zhiganov was hit more than 40 times with a steel poker and ransacked his home for valuable items like power tools and bank cards. In a calculated attempt to kill the judge, he then dropped a dumbbell three times on his head before fleeing.

Bogdanov, in his interview, explains how he plans to return to the mercenary force despite being injured.

Russia Behind Bars’ Olga Romanova, the head, said that almost all those who have completed their six-month Wagner contract return to the mercenary organization.

While most will do it voluntarily, she admits that some may feel pressured.

It is not clear how much these pardons allow former prisoners to be freed.

Image This photo is from Bogdanov’s social media

Bogdanov explains in an interview how he still had 13 years on his sentence at the time he was hired by Wagner.

Mr Prigozhin replies, “You were an offender as they say,” but now you are a war hero.

However, social media did not respond to Bogdanov’s return.

Commentaries under a Bogdanov post on a local community site show that some people, such as Prigozhin consider him a military hero.

However, others may feel quite differently.

This discomfort is not reserved for former prisoners who survived the bloody battle in the Donbas.

Residents of Zhireken, Russia’s Far East, filed a complaint after a prisoner convicted of murder two years ago was scheduled to be given a military funeral.

“Half the village asks: ‘Are you going to make heroes from killers now? Half of the village believes he paid for his sins by his blood. Alena Kogodeeva (head of village settlement), said that they understood that the person in question needed to be removed.

Olga Romanova, Russia Behind Bars, says that most returning prisoners will be treated as heroes.

“No one asks for the opinions of the victims. Sky News’s Sheryl told Sky News that she was shocked at the lawlessness and believes it will have long-term tragic effects, as well as many years of legal nihilism.

Image: Yevgeny Privozhin shows Vladimir Putin, Russian President, at his factory in 2010. Pic: AP

Will Russian prisoners fight in Ukraine?

On 9 February, Mr. Prigozhin declared that Wagner’s prisoner recruitment would be canceled.

Since then, Putin’s ally has accused Russia’s Defence Ministry of trying to “destroy” Wagner by stopping ammunition supplies in an act that he called “treason.”

Reports also suggest that the Russian Ministry of Defence is now recruiting prisoners. Russia Behind Bars claims that this is more selective and allowed by a new law which allows people with a criminal record to fight.

Therefore, it is not clear what the future holds for prisoners in Wagner.

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at Janes Defence Intelligence Firm Janes. She warns however that the information Mr Prigozhin announces may not reflect reality.

Sky News was told that Prigozhin was part of the Kremlin’s shadowy apparatus. “A little misdirection is not impossible for him, given that Prigozhin is a part of it.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me that prisoner recruitment by Wagner continues.”

Sky News’ Data and Forensics unit is multi-skilled and dedicated to transparent journalism. To tell data-driven stories, we gather, analyse, and visualise data. Our traditional reporting skills are combined with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media, and other open-source information. Multimedia storytelling allows us to tell the story of our journalism and help people understand it.

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