Prisons in wartime: our report on Wagner Group’s recruitments in Russian prisons. Key findings and legal analysis

In a joint submission sent on 21 September EPLN & Russia Behind Bars (Русь Сидящая, RBB) called on six UN mechanisms to declare that the recruitment of Russian prisoners to serve in Ukraine in the ranks of the Wagner paramilitary company involves forced labour and arbitrary detention.

Based on an extensive review of both publicly available sources and information obtained through prisoners, their relatives and prison officers, the report describes in detail the system put in place by Wagner, and provides quantitative data on the scale of the recruitment. As of 26 September, around 6,000 prisoners were conscripted following a visit by Wagner officials in 47 Russian correctional colonies (recent reports also mention recruitment attempts in prisons located in the Donetsk Region, in occupied Ukraine). These figures are growing day by day as a result of both new recruitments being made and information on previous recruitments being disclosed. 

This recruitment campaign was carried out with the personal involvement of Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the active participation of Russian prison administration.

 

EPLN & RBB argue that such activities are in breach of Russian law and a number of international instruments.

  • Once recruited by Wagner, prisoners are no longer placed under the supervision of the prison administration. Control over the inmates is therefore being unlawfully transferred to a private entity.
  • As a result of the absence of any legal framework regulating the recruitment of prisoners by a private military company, Russian authorities subject these prisoners to forced labour. Furthermore, in view of an intrinsic link between the lawfulness of a deprivation of liberty and its conditions of execution, the use of detainees on the battlefield constitutes arbitrary detention. The performance of tasks unrelated to the objectives of the sentence, in a totally illegal setting and with the promise of a future hypothetical release, causes the detention order to lose all connection with the initial conviction, thus rendering it invalid.
  • Sending the persons concerned to combat zones under the authority of private contractors blatantly violates the prison service’s obligation under international law to protect the lives of detainees.

 

EPLN & RBB urge relevant UN mechanisms to call on the Russian authorities:

  • to provide responses to the findings presented above, and to communicate information on recruited prisoners (numbers, names, current situation, casualties);
  • to put an end to unlawful recruitment campaigns among prisoners;
  • to restrict access to prison facilities for private military contractors;
  • to ensure the rapid return to the Russian territory of prisoners deployed by Wagner and their presentation to a judge to rule on the legality of their detention ;
  • to conduct an effective investigation and bring to disciplinary and criminal responsibility prison officials and other government bodies who were involved in and/or tolerated the recruitment campaign in penitentiary facilities.