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Ukraine parliament passes bill for prisoners to join army

In News, World
May 08, 2024

Parliament’s chairperson and President Zelenskyy need to sign the legislation for it to become law.

Ukraine’s parliament has passed a bill that would enable some prisoners to fight in the armed forces as the military faces a critical personnel shortage and Russian forces continue to advance on the battlefield.

The move on Wednesday marks a U-turn in Ukraine’s approach on the matter. Kyiv had long opposed the measure and had repeatedly criticised Moscow for mobilising prisoners to fill its ranks.

The legislation would need to be signed by the chairperson of parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before coming into force.

“The parliament has voted yes,” MP Olena Shuliak, head of Zelenskyy’s party, said in a Facebook post.

“The draft law opens the possibility for certain categories of prisoners who expressed a desire to defend their country to join the Defence Forces,” she said.

Mobilisation would be voluntary and open only to certain categories of prisoners.

Among those not eligible to serve include those found guilty of sexual violence, killing two or more people, serious corruption and former high-ranking officials, Shuliak said.

Only prisoners with under three years left to serve on their sentence may apply, she said. Any prisoners who are mobilised would be granted parole rather than a pardon.

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‘Redemption by blood’

The organisation Protection for Prisoners of Ukraine, which had lobbied for a measure allowing prisoners to fight, was disappointed with the adopted text.

“We support the idea behind the law, … but the text that was passed is discriminatory,” the NGO’s head, Oleg Tsvily, said.

“They got rid of leave for [fighting] prisoners, and we don’t know if they’re meant to fight until the war ends – which could mean longer than their sentence,” he explained.

Tsvily said he feared the creation of “special units” for mobilised soldiers would lead to abuse against prisoners.

“It’s like in Russia – redemption by blood. … Anyone willing to fight will be put in one unit and commanded like meat,” he said.

He was referring to reported practices of the Wagner mercenary group of sending waves of convicts into assaults likened to “meat grinders”.

Russia has recruited prisoners to serve on the front lines since the first days of its invasion in February 2022, initially offering presidential pardons for six months of service.

The practice was spearheaded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was filmed touring Russian prisons to recruit foot soldiers for his Wagner Group.

More than two years into the war, Kyiv is grappling with how to recruit enough soldiers to repel an intensification of Russian attacks on the front lines.

It has recently toughened measures against draft dodgers and lowered the age at which men can be drafted from 27 to 25.

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