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Ukraine turns to prisons to replenish frontline forces

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Ukraine is to start recruiting prisoners to fight against Russia under a new law designed to bolster its frontline forces, including with men convicted of murder or fraud.

Using a tactic Moscow has relied on to fill ranks since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kyiv would begin to offer certain convicts a path to freedom if they are willing to join a combat unit.

The bill, approved on Wednesday by the Ukrainian parliament, is the latest in a series of measures aimed at mobilising more men to replace casualties and soldiers exhausted from long tours on the frontline. It still requires the signature of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to enter into force.

The drive to enlist convicts is expected to result in several thousand new recruits from a prison population of about 20,000, according to David Arakhamia, a senior lawmaker. That is a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of fresh soldiers Ukraine says it needs this year to hold back Moscow’s advancing forces.

The Russian army and militias deployed in Ukraine have routinely drawn manpower from prisons, irrespective of the crimes recruits have committed. Examples of convicts reoffending have been numerous, while in service or after returning to Russia, further damaging the reputation of the Russian armed forces.

Though Ukraine’s decision to turn to prisons is borne out of the same manpower needs, Kyiv has included stricter eligibility conditions to distance itself from Russia’s more reckless prison recruitment practices.

Ineligible convicts include serial murderers, drug traffickers and those guilty of sexual violence, corruption and national security crimes, according to Olena Shuliak, an MP from Zelenskyy’s party.

Men convicted of a single murder can sign up but would be automatically excluded if also found guilty of rape. Former high-ranking politicians and ministers who are serving prison terms are also not allowed to enlist.

Shuliak acknowledged that the law had the potential to “cause a violent reaction from society”, but said that it had been crafted together with the ministries of defence and justice, as well as the armed forces.

“It is only possible to withstand the conditions of a total war against an enemy with more resources by consolidating all [our] forces. This draft law is about our struggle and preservation of Ukrainian statehood,” she wrote on social media.

Ukrainian prisoners who volunteer must undergo a physical and mental health test and have at least three years remaining of their sentence. They will serve in special units for as long as the war continues or until they are demobilised.

Failure to complete their military service or attempting to defect would be punishable by five to 10 years in prison. If they commit another crime while serving, the remainder of their previous sentence will be added on top.

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