Russia's Wagner Group executes recruits who try to desert, UN experts say

Thousands of Russian and foreign mercenaries are fighting for Moscow in Ukraine

Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. AFP
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The Wagner Group has coerced prisoners and others into joining the Russian private army to fight in Ukraine and may have committed war crimes by executing deserters, a group of UN analysts said on Friday.

The Wagner Group — a network providing fighters for hire that was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — has been heavily involved in Moscow's efforts to capture the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, in what has become the longest and bloodiest fight since Russia invaded more than a year ago.

The White House last month put the toll of Wagner fighters killed or injured at 30,000.

The mercenary force has pulled inmates from prisons and sent them to the front lines, the Human Rights Council-appointed analysts said.

“We are deeply disturbed by reports of visits by members of the so-called Wagner Group to correctional facilities in various regions of Russia, 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,” they said.

They said recruitment was carried out through “threats or intimidation”, with prisoners allegedly taken to a detention facility in the Rostov region for training before being sent to Ukraine.

Later, they were transferred to Ukraine without identification documents and forced to sign a contract with Wagner.

“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,” the experts said.

The prisoners are reported to have been deployed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, and to have participated in human rights abuses, including the abduction of Ukrainian soldiers and officers.

Russian authorities they have “an obligation to exercise the utmost vigilance to protect detainees from violence, exploitation and intimidation”, they said.

They have reported their concerns to Russian authorities and the Wagner Group.

The US formally designated Russia's Wagner Group in January as a transnational “significant” criminal organisation and imposed sanctions on numerous entities associated with it.

Updated: March 11, 2023, 2:07 PM