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Prisons in wartime: our report on Wagner Group’s recruitments in Russian prisons

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On 24 August 2023 EPLN & Russia Behind Bars (Русь Сидящая, RBB) submitted an updated report on the recruitment of prisoners in Russian prisons, as well as in correctional facilities in the occupied territories of Ukraine to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Russian Federation.

Earlier, the organisations had submitted similar reports to other UN Special Procedures Mandate holders in March 2023 and September 2022 calling on the UN mechanisms to declare that the recruitment of prisoners to serve in Ukraine in the ranks of the Wagner paramilitary company involves forced labour and arbitrary detention.

Read our updated report from 24 August 2023 >> HERE

Read the older report from 21 September 2022 >> IN ENGLISH >> НА РУССКОМ

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 subsequently “overtaken” by the Russian Ministry of Defence, and provides quantitative data on the scale of the recruitment. As of 24 August 2023, around 40,000 prisoners were enlisted following visits by Wagner recruiters in dozens Russian correctional colonies (reports also mention recruitment attempts in prisons located in the occupied regions of Ukraine). In addition, around 25,000 prisoners were recruited by the Ministry of Defence. 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 (presumably killed in a plane crash on 23 August), and with the active participation of Russian prison administration.

EPLN & RBB argue that the recruitment was in breach of Russian law and a number of international instruments, despite official confirmation of the pardoning of the recruited prisoners.

  • Once recruited by Wagner / Ministry of Defence, 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 or semi-official formations (such as “Storm Z” battalion).
  • As a result of the absence of any legal framework regulating the recruitment of prisoners by a private military company, the Russian authorities subjected 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.
  • Subsequent attempts of the Russian authorities to retroactively legalise the recruitment have failed not only to improve the situation, but moreover paved way to new violations of prisoners’ rights, further exposing them as an obedient labour force to the Russian army.
  • Sending the persons concerned to combat zones under the authority of private contractors / semi-official military formations 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 and the Ministry of Defence representatives;
  • to ensure the rapid return to the Russian territory of prisoners deployed in Ukraine 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 agents who were involved in and/or tolerated the recruitment campaign in penitentiary facilities.


Updated report 24 August 2023 (English)
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Report 21 September 2022 (in English)
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Report 21 September 2022 (на русском)
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