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From prison to the Ukrainian front

The need for soldiers in the Ukrainian army is great. Since the beginning of May, prisoners have also been able to apply for mobilization. But not all of them have the necessary qualifications – or the will.

Andrea Beer

Yard walk in a Ukrainian prison that cannot be named: Under guard, a group of men walk along the high gray walls with barbed wire. Some of them may soon swap their beige prison clothes for a uniform. At the beginning of May, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new mobilization law that allows convicts to apply for military service from prison.

Prisoner Vladimir Baran thinks this is a good thing and is not afraid of rejection by other soldiers: “This is a good law, because all Ukrainians should defend our country,” he says. His fellow prisoner Oleh Omeltyuk puts it much more soberly: “Above all, this is a chance to get out of here.”

Convicts must meet conditions

However, not every one of the approximately 65,000 men who, according to Ukrainian law enforcement authorities, are currently serving a prison sentence can take advantage of this option. If convicts want to voluntarily go to the trenches from their cell, they must meet a number of conditions. The sentence imposed must not be longer than three years. Convicted war criminals, murderers and sex offenders are not eligible. And those behind bars for terrorism, violations of national security, collaboration or attempted murder of police officers or members of the army must remain there.

Oleh Tsvily, head of an NGO that campaigns for the rights of prisoners, stresses that for most of them it is not about getting out of prison. Their main motivation is to defend Ukraine against the Russian aggressor. Most of them had already applied for amnesty in the first days of the Russian invasion, Tsvily said on the Ukrainian broadcaster Suspilne. This was denied to them.

After their release, they joined the army and are still fighting, and many of them have died. This is precisely what they proved that freedom is not the most important thing for them.

A court decides on Prisoner applications for the army

Whether a prisoner is allowed to join the Ukrainian army is decided by a court, which does not remit the sentence but suspends it on probation. However, the military is not obliged to exempt the ex-prisoners – not all commanders would want that either, said Ukrainian Justice Minister Denys Maljuska recently on Ukrainian television.

Commander Ivan Burjak of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade is not one of them. He told the Suspilne television station: “I believe that everyone should be given the chance to correct themselves.” Everyone makes mistakes in life. “If someone admits to making a mistake, it already shows that they have thought about it. I think correcting mistakes, even by shedding your own blood, is definitely a good thing.”

Ukraine cannot mobilize enough volunteers

Especially since many men in Ukraine are feeling less and less desire to fight in the army and to replace exhausted and often repeatedly wounded soldiers, some of whom have been deployed for more than two years.

There are several reasons for the unwillingness to mobilize: demobilization not regulated by the state, a lack of weapons and powerful equipment at the front, corruption in the army, or simply the fear of death, injury or mutilation. According to the Ministry of Justice, 3,000 of the up to 20,000 prisoners who could be mobilized have so far applied for this. Prison employee Oleksandr is not surprised: “A large number of convicts want to join the army,” he says.

First applications processed

But there are also concerns. Mobilizing convicts is a complex matter, explained the human rights organization Human Rights Watch. On the one hand, it can help with resocialization, but on the other hand, there is a risk that the rights of ex-prisoners will be violated under the given circumstances and that they will be seen as human material.

A court in the city of Khmelnitsky has now ruled for the first time on the applications of two convicted thieves who can now fight in the National Guard. They have passed the health and psychological tests and are physically fit, the court said in a statement.

Prisoner Mykola Rybalko also wants to join the army, in this way or another: “I have no other option anyway. I can either be mobilized from prison or after my release.”

Andrea Beer, ARD Kiev, tagesschau, 24.05.2024 10:21 a.m.

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