A secret pardon granted by President Vladimir V. Putin to a Russian prisoner who fought in Ukraine shows that the former inmate received clemency on the day he left jail to join the war, an act that rights activists say short-circuits the existing legal process.
The document, a copy of a prison release certificate reviewed by The New York Times, is the first published evidence of what activists say is a mass pardon campaign instituted by the Kremlin to entice tens of thousands of prisoners to enter battle.
Such recruits became a crucial component of Russia’s war effort in recent months. The Wagner mercenary group has used such fighters to unleash waves of suicidal attacks intended to wear down Ukrainian positions along the heavily fortified eastern front, where Russian forces have been making slow gains, including on the key city of Bakhmut.
The founder of the mercenary group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who is an ally of Mr. Putin’s, appeared in prison recruitment videos last year, promising freedom for those who signed on. In early January, Wagner began releasing videos of former inmates receiving what appeared to be pardon papers after finishing their contracts. Analysts and rights activists said the videos were an effort to raise Wagner’s flagging recruitment numbers. (Mr. Prigozhin said on Thursday that Wagner would no longer recruit fighters in Russian prisons, though he did not specify why.)
The pardon videos immediately raised questions about whether the recruiting was circumventing the legal process. Existing pardon rules typically required an extended consultation process among multiple government agencies. And only Mr. Putin, as president, can pardon prisoners. In 2021, he pardoned just six people, according to the Kremlin.
The prison release certificate reviewed by The Times was issued by Russia’s Justice Ministry. It says that the inmate was freed in late August by “a pardon decree issued by the president of the Russian Federation.”
The former prisoner received the certificate this month while recuperating from a mine injury in an infirmary in southern Russia. The Times redacted his personal details to protect him against retaliation.
The Times obtained the certificate from Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoner’s rights lawyer. The inmate’s mother had previously confirmed to The Times his identity and Wagner contract. His personal details and prison sentences also match those found in Russia’s publicly available legal database.
Ms. Gelmel said the issuing of such certificates dealt a major blow to the vestiges of legality in Russia by erasing the rights of crime victims to compensation.
“They can kill a man, they can rob, and then they can go to war and walk free,” she said of former inmates who had received pardons. “This is complete impunity.”
The Kremlin has not published any pardon decrees this year, but Mr. Putin’s spokesman and pro-government rights campaigners have implied in recent weeks that Wagner fighters’ legal statuses could be a state secret.
“All these decrees are closed,” Eva Merkacheva, a member of Russia’s Kremlin-allied Human Rights Council, told the state news media in January. “We can’t see them.”