Convicts from Russia’s Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), who went to war in Ukraine to avoid torture in prison, face torture at the front as well: the company’s command cuts off prisoners' fingers, hides traces of torture by burning bodies in crematoria, and threatens former inmates with a video of a live person being skinned for shooting at one of his officers. Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the Gulagu.net media project, provided evidence of correspondence with his source and documents of torture to The Insider. The Insider was able to verify the correspondence and personal data of the prisoner, and confirm that he is a member of the Wagner PMC.
The convict said he signed a contract with the PMC, as many did to avoid being tortured in prison. The three-page contract, among other things, required that he specify his relatives’ personal details: the full names of his father and mother, as well as their addresses. The document also stated that the prisoner's body was not to be handed over to his relatives, but cremated instead. The source himself believes that the PMC are doing so to “cover their tracks” and prevent Russia’s Investigative Committee from looking into cases of prisoner torture. Prisoners are shot for attempting to escape, said the source, and their fingers are cut off for quarreling with the command. Commanders say that if fugitives are not caught, pressure will be put on their relatives.
“If you run, we’ll catch you, torture you, and you’ll die a very slow death. If we don't catch you, everything will impact your relatives.”
Every second prisoner wants to escape from the unit, but everyone is intimidated, as commanders cut off convicts' fingers or take people to the torture room every day for show. As a warning against escaping, the convicts were told how one of the prisoners who shot the commander was tortured. He was skinned and “deliberately kept on an IV so that he died in terrible agony for days.” The inmates were also promised to be shown a video of a place where “the brains of [disobedient] convicts were splattered.”
All inmates hide their phones, as they can have their fingers cut off for using them. Communication is used only when not seen by commanders – for instance, in the trenches. At the moment, prisoners from a penal colony in Penza have already been sent to the front line, prisoners from the Volgograd region are being prepared for combat, and prisoners from Orenburg are going through express training, which actually consists of intimidation. At the same time, the convicts are not paid for the war, but are promised release.
Criminal and repeat offender Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the founders of the Wagner PMC, had earlier responded to a question as to whether he was afraid of going to jail for being a mercenary. Prigozhin claims that he is prepared to go to prison along with his mercenaries, if all the “disgruntled and unsatisfied” go into battle instead of them.
In September, a video was made public depicting Prigozhin recruiting prisoners from Penal Colony No. 6 in Yoshkar-Ola. The footage shows him standing in front of the inmates and telling them about the conditions of service, and directly confirming his relation to the Wagner PMC for the very first time. Convicts had told The Insider that Prigozhin personally recruits prisoners in Russian colonies even before the video appeared, offering release in six months for taking part in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. According to the prisoners, Prigozhin did not hide the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally sanctioned their recruitment. Human rights activist Olga Romanova, head of the Russia Behind Bars foundation, has said that a convicted cannibalistic maniac was also recruited for the Wagner PMC.
It was not until October 27th that Russia’s State Duma passed a law permitting the mobilization of citizens with an outstanding or unexpunged criminal record for severe crimes. Murderers and rapists were allowed to be sent to war in Ukraine, as the articles under which they were convicted are not on the list of exceptions. Both the Prigozhin video and the prisoners' stories appeared before the law was passed, meaning the prisoners were recruited illegally. According to news outlet RBC, the recent will amend a paragraph of Russia's law “On Mobilization,” which previously prohibited people with an unexpunged criminal record for serious crimes from serving in the armed forces.
Prigozhin is a criminal and a repeat offender, who has been convicted of theft, fraud and involving minors in criminal activity. His mercenaries are involved in numerous operations across the world, in some cases (such as the invasion of Ukraine) under the direct command of Russia’s military intelligence – the GRU. Prigozhin has been nicknamed “Putin's chef” due to his Kremlin catering contracts. He also finances the Internet Research Agency – Russia’s largest “troll farm.”