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“They will be used in demining, and without skills it's a sure death”: Olga Romanova on sending prisoners to war

A mass «mobilization» of prisoners is underway in Russia, relatives of convicts say to the Russia Behind Bars foundation. They are being recruited all over the country to be used as «cannon fodder” in the Ukrainian war. Inmates of penal colonies without any documents are invited to sign as «volunteers» with the Wagner PMC to fight in Donbass. Olga Romanova, director of the Russia Behind Bars foundation helping convicts and their families, said in an interview with The Insider that prisoners are being taken to war with the promises of freedom if they manage to survive.

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This is not the first wave of prisoner recruitment. The first wave was in early February and March, when the FSB and the Wagner PMC went through the colonies where former siloviki are held - convicted prosecutors, ex-military servicemen and so on. The harvest was not very large there, because former employees are good for dispersing rallies, but they do not want to fight, they understand what to expect better than ordinary people do. Almost none of them went to war, only a few of them signed up.

Then there was a large recruitment campaign for the Chechen battalion. Chechens were recruited from different parts of Russia.

Now there's a third wave, which resembles a hidden mobilization, and they're taking almost everyone. There are restrictions based on the sentences: for example, prisoners who were convicted of rape or pedophilia are not accepted. They mostly take people convicted of robbery and narcotics. There are a lot of those we call «stealers», i.e. those who had been stealing things. It makes no difference if you were in the army or not, as long as there is no rape and pedophilia sentence.

In terms of geography, it’s the Leningrad region, Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir region, and at this point we know about Veliky Novgorod, they have been recruiting there already. The geography is expanding.

Tonight, more than 40 people left from Obukhovo penal colony #6. Their relatives have been in touch with us with an absolutely amazing stance: «We want them back in prison, let them serve their time there instead.” The «hope it doesn’t get worse» sentiment prevails. And the prisoners are actually being recruited to be killed. Basically, they will be used for demining, and without skills – it’s a sure death.

People who should have gotten parole, but didn't for various reasons, are going. They have no employment, and suddenly the PMC Wagner arrives and says: «Here is a contract and a job.” And the court and the colony say: «It’s ok.” We have not seen a single contract, and I do not know a single case where a contract has been actually signed. Everybody goes without signing any papers, at least we don't know about cases to the contrary, and we have several reports of people signing non-disclosure papers.

From a legal standpoint, it's not backed up in any way. A lot of people haven’t gotten their parole yet. We haven't seen a single court order. We’ve been frequenting the websites of the district courts in Yablonevka, in Obukhovo and in Nizhniy Novgorod, and there is not a single court decision saying that so-and-so was released and transported to the Rostov region. We haven’t seen any unusual judicial activity.

If Russia is at war with Ukraine, then it’s a mobilization. If it's war, then it's normal, it's martial law. If it’s not a war but a special military operation, then let us see the court decisions. Then we can approach the colony warden and ask, «Where is Petrov?» and we can start looking for him. On what grounds has he been transported to an unknown location? The relatives start doing this, but they are afraid. «Hope it doesn’t get worse,» they say the moment their husband or father boards a train to Rostov.

Anna Titova

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