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This week's main stories:
- Russian Government rejects tougher penalties for terrorism-related offences
- UN human rights experts highlight Wagner abuses in Mali
- Mediazona claims fall in Wagner prison recruitment
| Russian Government rejects tougher penalties for terrorism-related offences|
The Russian Government has rejected a proposal by State Duma Deputy Oleg Matveychev (United Russia) to impose tougher penalties for a variety of terrorism-related offences (Kommersant, 7 February).
Matveychev’s legislative initiative called for the introduction of the death penalty for carrying out a terrorist attack. It also advocated increased sentences for aiding, promoting, and justifying terrorism.
The death penalty remains on the books in Russia, but no executions have been carried out since 1996. A formal moratorium was imposed in 1999. However, in 2009 Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty would remain illegal in Russia even with the expiration of the moratorium because of international agreements signed by Russia (Lenta.ru, 19 November 2009). Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitriy Medvedev had declared in March 2022 that there were no legal obstacles to the reintroduction of the death penalty following the Council of Europe’s decision to exclude Russia in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine -- Russia's accession to the Council having been one of the key relevant international agreements (Vedomosti, 25 March 2022).
The Government’s legislative commission, however, rejected Matveychev’s initiative, arguing that the constitutional moratorium remained in place. Moreover, the commission contended that crimes punishable by death must, according to the Constitution, be reviewed by jury trial, whereas the Criminal Code excludes terrorism cases from the remit of juries. Tougher penalties for the other terrorism-related crimes were effectively rejected on the grounds that Matveychev had not done his homework. The commission determined that he had not provided sufficient justification for the change or provided evidence of the impact it would have.
| UN human rights experts highlight Wagner abuses in Mali|
A UN-appointed panel of human rights experts has called on the Malian authorities to launch an investigation into allegations that Wagner and government forces have carried out extrajudicial killings (UN News, 31 January).
The panel claimed that “a climate of terror and complete impunity” surrounds Wagner’s activities in the country. Its accusations concern
"credible reports that over the course of several days in late March 2022, Malian armed forces accompanied by military personnel believed to belong to the Wagner Group, executed several hundred people, who had been rounded up in Moura, a village in central Mali."
The experts also allege that Wagner are involved in violating the rights of ethnic Peuhl in the country, including through the use of “torture, rape, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.” They note that victims face significant challenges in accessing justice and achieving accountability for abuses.
This is not the first time that Wagner have been accused of carrying out human rights abuses. In March 2021, the family members of a Syrian man who was tortured, killed, and posthumously mutilated in 2017 filed a criminal case in Moscow against Wagner (International Federation for Human Rights, 22 March 2021). There have been numerous accusations that Wagner has carried out extrajudicial killings in Ukraine; indeed, the sledgehammer supposedly used in some executions has become a symbol of the group (BBC Russian Service, 8 December 2022). UN experts have also accused Wagner of committing systematic and grave human rights abuses, as well as violently harassing and intimidating civilians, in the Central African Republic. A special commission set up by the CAR government similarly concluded that Wagner were implicated in human rights abuses (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 27 October 2021)
| Mediazona claims fall in Wagner prison recruitment|
Mediazona has published an article that claims that, at the end of last year, Wagner had initiated a second major wave of recruitment in Russian prisons. This time, however, they claim that there are far fewer volunteers, and prisoners do not believe the promises that are being made. In response to these recruitment difficulties, the article claims that Wagner has launched a PR campaign to spotlight former prisoners who have survived and gone on to reap the benefits of participation (Mediazona, 6 February 2023).
Wagner’s prison recruitment efforts have been widely covered in the media. Indeed, the first edition of this newsletter reported on an interview with Yana Gelmel, from the In Defence of the Rights of Prisoners foundation. Gelmel contended that prisoners are often existing in an information bubble that is purposefully maintained by the prison authorities. Mediazona’s report effectively implies that the prison grapevine is piercing that bubble. It cites interviews with prisoners who have managed to maintain some form of contact with the recruited fighters. The report also claims that Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin is no longer personally involved in the recruitment efforts, and his substitutes are less charismatic and struggle to assuage concerns about high mortality rates among recruits. Interestingly, the report points to reluctance to support recruitment among prison administrators too, because of the detrimental effect it has on prison labour. Everyone has their own priorities, after all.
Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, estimated in January that Wagner had recruited 50,000 people from prison, but that only 10,000 were still fighting — the rest having been killed, wounded, disappeared, deserted or surrendered. Such numbers are, of course, impossible to verify (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 23 January). The claim that there is a second wave of recruitment is largely a matter of perspective: it might be that recruiters are returning to the same prison for a second time, but on a more macro level there isn’t much evidence that a first wave of recruitment ever stopped or significantly declined.
| Other stories of interest|
- A Wagner fighter who was recruited from a Siberian prison found himself cut off from the group after his training camp in Luhansk was attacked and returned to Russia. He claims he planned to turn himself in, but now thinks that he might already have been pardoned, and so is now in hiding from Wagner out of fear of retribution (Mediazona, 1 February).
- Chechen book publisher sentenced to 17 years on charges of sending R34m to the Islamic State. The publisher had denied the charges (Caucasian Knot, 3 February).
- Rostov Oblast resident sentenced to 10 years for attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria (Caucasian Knot, 3 February).
- Kabardino-Balkarian resident sentenced to 10 and a half years for feeding and treating rebels in Syria (Caucasian Knot, 2 February).
- Sochi activist killed fighting with Wagner near Bakhmut, Ukraine, having been recruited from prison (Kavkaz Realii, 3 February).
- The Guardian reports that Wagner fighters have sustained heavy casualties in renewed fighting in the Central African Republic. Wagner are notionally supporting the government against rebels, but one of the rebel leaders cited in the article claimed that government troops were not party to the latest clashes (Guardian, 2 February).
- Igor Manushev seriously wounded in what is described as a “hit.” Manushev fought with the ENOT PMC in Ukraine in 2014, gained notoriety in 2022 for posing with what he claimed was the skull of a Ukrainian fighter, and is described as a “spin doctor” for Prigozhin (The Telegraph, 5 February).
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