Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who founded the most powerful mercenary group in the country, on Thursday released the first group of prisoners whom he recruited to fight in the war against Ukraine for six months in exchange for freedom, according to NBC News.
“Don’t booze too much, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women — [sex is] only for love or for money as they say,” Prigozhin reportedly told the group on Thursday in footage supplied by RIA, Russia’s state news agency. “Police should treat you with respect. You have learned a great deal — first of all: how to kill the enemy.”
Prigozhin urged the men not to “practice that skill” on “forbidden territory” and said they could return to battle if they wanted to “kill the enemy again.”
The Wagner Group, which comprises top military officers, former spies and former prisoners, has the motto “Blood, honor, Motherland, courage.” Originally staffed by Russian veterans, the group has fought in countries including Libya, Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic. The group, which has been accused of committing countless human rights abuses, has been used in the war against Ukraine to make up for Russian troop shortages.
Prigozhin, whose Concord Catering company earned him a fortune, has recruited 35,000 prisoners since last June, according to an estimate from prisoner advocacy organization Russia Behind Bars per The New York Times.
Prigozhin was sanctioned by several western countries for his alleged election interference.
In exchange for their duty, Prigozhin reportedly promised the men substantial salaries, bonuses, and death and incapacity payouts — as well as their freedom viapardons after six months.
However, the legality of the promised pardons is unclear. Under the Russian constitution, only the president can issue pardons for prisoners. As The New York Times pointed out, the Kremlin did not publish any pardon decrees this week. Former prisoners who fought for Russia in exchange for freedom have previously questioned the legitimacy of pardons given for work related to the Wagner Group.
In video footage, Prigozhin is seen shaking hands with the men. The RIA said they were flown out of the southern Krasnodar region after receiving medals for bravery.
“I hope the adrenaline you have used up over this past half a year will be enough for at least a month,” Prigozhin said. “Some of you I am seeing for the last time, some I will see again. Remember life has given you this chance: you didn’t doge the honor, you didn’t ass it up.”
The 61-year-old spent nine years in prison for robbery and other crimes before going into business. Last year, the U.S. State Department offered $10 million for information on Prigozhin’s 2016 election interference. He also used a troll farm to influence 2018’s midterms.
“You defended the Motherland, all of you were ready to die these past 180 days,” he told the men on Thursday. “Now we have to control ourselves.”