Russian lawmakers on Thursday approved legislation that could see people who criticise mercenaries, including members of the Wagner force fighting in Ukraine, jailed for up to 15 years.

The laws build on penalties introduced after Russia deployed troops to Ukraine that Kremlin opponents say was designed to criminalize criticism of the conflict.

Mercenary groups like Wagner, which has recruited from Russian prisons and is spearheading Moscow's assault on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, have recently gained a huge public profile.

"This legislative initiative will protect everyone that risks their lives to ensure the security of our country and our citizens," said the chairman of Russia's lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin.

Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched troops to Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow introduced long jail terms for anyone deemed to have discredited the army or spread false information about it.

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The lower house of parliament on Thursday backed changes to the legislation, introducing punishments for critics of "volunteer formations" and individuals assisting Russia's regular forces.

Lawmakers at the same time tightened penalties relating to the existing laws.

"Discrediting" servicemen or "volunteers" fighting with regular troops will be punishable by up to seven years in prison, compared to five years previously.

The maximum term for spreading "false information" about Russia's forces is 15 years in prison.

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The legislation was approved even though serving as a mercenary remains illegal in Russia.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is an ally of Putin's, had called on Russian authorities to shield his forces from criticism.

United States Attorney General Merrick Garland this week branded Prigozhin a "war criminal."

 

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