President Volodymyr Zelensky signed legislation into law on May 17 that would allow certain categories of convicted prisoners or those accused of crimes and held in pre-trial detention to volunteer to serve in Ukraine’s Armed Forces in exchange for the chance to be granted parole upon completion of their service.

Minister of Justice, Denys Maliuska, confirmed in an interview with The New York Times on Friday, May 24 that approval had been given for the first 350 or so prisoners to be released in the first week since the law came into force. He also said that more than 4,000 of the around 20,000 inmates that were likely to be eligible, had put their names forward for consideration and were currently being assessed.

Many Western commentators have suggested that this has echoes of the policy in Russia that was begun in the fall of 2022 by the Wagner PMC that freed tens of thousands of prisoners, no matter the crimes for which they were sentenced, with promises of pardons for fighting in President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

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While it is true that Kyiv’s version of prisoner amnesty is also driven by the need to compensate for the current battlefield manpower shortages it is suffering, the law has imposed strict rules on which prisoners would be eligible.

Moscow’s version allowed serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and other serious criminals to receive a “get out of jail free card and, initially, a complete pardon after serving as little as six months on the front line. This was amended earlier in 2024 as the public outcry in Russia grew after several high profile violent crimes were committed by returning releasees.

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How the strengthening of the right-wing camp in the EU Parliament will effect support for Ukraine is still unclear, as this is yet another issue on which the corresponding parties are divided.

Ukraine has set limits on who could qualify. Only prisoners with fewer than three years left on their sentence can apply, with mobilized prisoners being granted parole rather than a pardon.

Among those not eligible to serve are those found guilty of premeditated murder, rape, sexual violence or sexual crimes against minors, those involved in serious corruption, crimes against national security, and those who have held official office, including former MPs and ministers.

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Ukraine has also said that prisoners joining the Ukrainian defense forces would receive full military training before deployment. This contrasts sharply with the Russian model whereby released criminals received barely any training before being dispatched to Ukraine to serve as cannon fodder in Moscow’s infamous meat grinder assaults.

The NYT article says that most of the prisoners who have applied to join the military were young men convicted of theft or other non-violent crimes who were motivated by the fact that they had lost relatives and friends who had died in the war and were being encouraged and supported by their families.

It also commented that recruiting prisoners has drawn little criticism from the Ukrainian public as many saw that those convicts that volunteer are simply doing their duty to defend their country with others seeing it as an opportunity to atone for their crimes.

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