UN-appointed independent human rights experts on Friday said they were “deeply disturbed” by reports of the systematic recruitment of prisoners across Russia by the private military contractor known as the Wagner Group, which is playing a major role in the fighting in Ukraine.In a statement, the dozen experts said representatives from the Russian-owned mercenary outfit had been “offering pardons for criminal sentences to prisoners who join the group and take part in the war in Ukraine, as well as a monthly payment to their relatives”.
The experts – members of the Working Group on the use of Mercenaries, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and other Special Rapporteurs – said Wagner had allegedly recruited both Russian and foreign nationals serving sentences in correctional facilities.
The independent experts said they had been made aware of pressure tactics by Wagner recruiters, suggesting that in some cases recruitment was carried out through threats or intimidation.
In some cases, detainees were reportedly denied communication with their families and lawyers by recruiters from the group, “which could amount to, or expose them to, enforced disappearance.”
“Reports that recruited prisoners were allegedly taken to a detention facility in the Rostov region for training before being sent to Ukraine, and that they were transferred to Ukraine without identification documents and required to sign a contract with the Wagner Group, are deeply disturbing,” the Human Rights Council-appointed experts said.
“We are particularly concerned that the Wagner Group has extended its recruitment to correctional facilities in the Donetsk region of Ukraine,” they added.
Prison recruits are reported to have been deployed in the partly Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine and put to work doing various tasks including “providing military services, rebuilding infrastructure, and taking direct part in hostilities on the side of the Russian forces,” they said.
“Wagner Group recruits are alleged to have participated in human rights and humanitarian law violations in the context of the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine,” they said, “including enforced disappearances of Ukrainian soldiers and officers captured”.
“We are troubled by allegations that recruited prisoners are regularly threatened and ill-treated by their superiors,” the experts added.
“We have information that several recruits have been executed for attempting to escape and, in other cases, seriously injured in public as a warning to other recruits. Such tactics constitute human rights violations and may amount to war crimes,” they said.
Countries have an obligation to regulate and monitor private military and security firms operating under their jurisdiction, including hiring personnel, the experts stressed.
Obligation to protect
“The Government of the Russian Federation has an obligation to exercise the utmost vigilance to protect detainees from violence, exploitation and intimidation,” the experts said.
“States have an obligation to prohibit private individuals and companies from exploiting the vulnerability of prisoners for profit,” they added.
The experts have expressed their concerns about these allegations to the both the Russian Government and to the Wagner Group itself, which is owned and run by the businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Special Rapporteurs and independent experts operate in their individual capacity. They are not UN staff, nor do they receive a salary for their work.