Ukrainian convicts say they’d rather fight than sit in prison

Nearly 100 inmates were recently released early from a medium-security prison colony on the outskirts of Kyiv, into the hands of the country’s military.

The men are swapping their tan prison uniforms for combat gear, and converting the remainder of their multi-year sentences to serving an indefinite time on Ukraine’s front line.

As the country’s military grapples with exhausted troops, depleted ranks and fewer volunteers, Ukrainian officials are hoping the country’s prisons can provide as many as an additional 20,000 soldiers — and have launched a recruitment campaign to drum up volunteers.

“It doesn’t matter if I shoot or dig trenches,” said Renat Temirgaliev, a 25-year-old inmate who is seven years into a ten-year sentence for murdering his former boss, at a construction site over a payment dispute.

“I want to be a hero of Ukraine. I want to protect my country.”

Temirgaliev is waiting for a new copy of his passport in order to submit his official application for the military.

Under Ukraine’s new scheme, prisoners can apply to enlist, but need approval from the court. Some crimes make them ineligible, including rape, national security offences, and having killed two or more people.

Ukrainian officials contend this recruitment process is fair, free of coercion and dissimilar from how Russia has harnessed and used convicts for its war machine.

Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners signed on as Wagner mercenaries in the early months of the conflict,  lured by the promise of a presidential pardon if they survive a six-month contract.

Independent Russian journalists recently reported that more than 17,000 of them were killed in the bloody fight for Bakhmut last year.

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, in the prison dormitory that he shares with two dozen other men, Temirgaliev said he told his family about his decision to enlist, and his mother was firmly against it.

“She thinks I’m going to be killed and won’t come back alive,” he said.

“I think everything will be OK. But if my destiny is I’ll be killed, then so it will be.”


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