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A controversial exchange frees Russian convicts if they agree to fight in Ukraine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As Russia's military fortunes in Ukraine have rebounded, a key factor has been the recruitment of Russian convicts into the fight, lured by a secretive program of government pardons for those who survive. Yet, as NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, the families of the convicts' victims are now struggling to live with the consequences.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The footage is grainy, in that way that digital video, even from a few years ago, just 2015, can look older than it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The setting? - a local World War II memorial park in Kiselyovsk, a city in a mining region of central Siberia. But this much is clear when Vera Pekhteleva takes the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: She could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VERA PEKHTELEVA: (Singing in non-English language).

MAYNES: Vladimir Pekhtelev, Vera's uncle, says, for all her talents, what he remembers and misses most is her kindness.

VLADIMIR PEKHTELEV: (Through interpreter) The entire 23 years that I knew her, I can't remember her arguing with me or anyone. She was a happy and good person.

MAYNES: All of this made the recent news more painful. Pekhteleva's killer, an ex-boyfriend who'd been convicted by Russian court of torturing her to death over the course of 12 hours in January of 2020, was again free, despite ongoing litigation, despite the law, despite logic.

PEKHTELEV: (Through interpreter) We called the court to ask why it was taking so long for the next hearing, and they told us it was because they couldn't find him. We were shocked.

MAYNES: He disappeared. Pekhteleva's family later came across a photograph on social media that showed him at a barbecue with friends wearing army fatigues. Their inquiries to the Defense Ministry provided no clear answers until, months later, they learned that Pekhteleva's killer had received a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his military service in Ukraine. He was less than a year into a 17-year prison term.

PEKHTELEV: (Through interpreter) People I barely know come up to me and say, is it really true? They let him out? They're concerned that he'll be out walking the same streets with them and their children.

ALYONA POPOVA: Many families in Russia - they now have this dilemma.

MAYNES: Alyona Popova is a human rights lawyer who has long championed changes to domestic violence laws in Russia. Popova says she and her team have been contacted by scores of victims and their families who learned unexpectedly that convicted rapists and murderers were roaming free following their service in Ukraine.

POPOVA: And we don't have any statistics because we don't know how many people were mobilized from these penal colonies. We don't know how many people returned from the war. We don't know how many people were pardoned because all this information now is, like, a secret.

MAYNES: Yet the program to recruit prisoners couldn't be more public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In September of 2022, videos emerged of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the then-head of the Wagner mercenary group, making the rounds at prison colonies and offering a deal - survive six months in Ukraine fighting for Wagner and you're a free man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIGOZHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "There's zero chance you'll go back to prison," Prigozhin tells a crowd of convicts in one video. "But those of you who get to Ukraine and then change your mind - we'll mark you a deserter and shoot you on the spot."

SERGEY SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "There aren't that many people who want to go to the front," explained Sergey Sokolov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian independent newspaper that's covered Wagner.

SOKOLOV: (Through interpreter) So someone on high had a great idea that there's a group of people ready to take part in the war in exchange for their freedom - prisoners. And if these people have moral shortcomings, well, that wasn't their concern.

MAYNES: Wagner's recruitment effort came at a moment when Russia was struggling on the battlefield, says Sokolov, yet Prigozhin soon left the picture. He died in a still-unexplained plane crash in August of this year. By then, the Defense Ministry had taken over the practice of recruiting prisoners. Meanwhile, for Sokolov and his colleagues at Novaya Gazeta, the story was about to get personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JACKI LYNDEN: The body of Anna Politkovskaya was found with several gunshot wounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT SIMON: The Russian journalist was shot in the head.

MAYNES: In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, the newspaper's star investigative reporter, was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SIMON: She was 48 and had two children.

MAYNES: Last month, the newspaper learned that one of several men convicted of her murder had also been freed to go fight in Ukraine.

SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Sokolov says the assassin's release was painful, but expected, given the times. He also argues it was proof authorities had little intention of resolving the key question that's hung over the case for nearly two decades - who ordered Politkovskaya murder?

SOKOLOV: (Through interpreter) So you can, once and for all, come to the conclusion that no one is interested in solving the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

MAYNES: Popova, the human rights lawyer, notes the families of victims who challenged the amnesty rulings publicly risk violating new laws that make, quote, "denigrating" the Russian army a criminal penalty. Whatever their past crimes, notes Popova, these former convicts are now celebrated military veterans in the eyes of the government.

POPOVA: They are, like, so-called heroes. And when you are the hero, the whole system is behind your back. So you are totally protected by the system.

MAYNES: When asked about the amnesty program, the Kremlin has been unrepentant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the practice, saying the men had atoned for their crimes through blood on the battlefield. Vladimir Pekhtelev, Vera's uncle, says he finds such justifications baffling.

PEKHTELEV: (Through interpreter) The government isn't the victim here. The parents are. How can Vera's killer have pushed himself of guilt in their eyes?

MAYNES: The Pekhtelev family say they're going public in the hope the Kremlin will reconsider its decision. Maybe, they say, President Putin made a mistake or hadn't been informed of all the circumstances.

PEKHTELEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: All Pekhtelev knows is he wouldn't wish what his family's going through on his worst enemy.

PEKHTELEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "For three years, all we sought was basic justice," he says - "justice that's slipping away."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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