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Ukraine’s Parliament Passes Bill Allowing Some Convicts to Serve in Army

Ukraine’s Parliament Passes Bill Allowing Some Convicts to Serve in Army

Ukraine’s Parliament passed a bill on Wednesday that will allow some convicts to serve in the military in exchange for the possibility of parole at the end of their service, a move aimed at replenishing the army’s depleted ranks after more than two years of war.

The bill must still be signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was not immediately clear if he would do so, given the sensitivity of the matter.

The policy echoes a practice used by Russia, which has committed tens of thousands of convicts to the war, allowing it to gain the upper hand in bloody assaults by sheer force of numbers. While Russia has enlisted all manner of prisoners, the Ukrainian bill says that those convicted of premeditated murder, rape or other serious offenses will not be eligible — although some lawmakers said involuntary manslaughter convictions could be considered.

Olena Shulyak, the leader of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, said that the decision to mobilize and parole a prisoner would be made by a court and would require the prisoner’s willingness to join the army.

“The only way to survive in an all-out war against an enemy with more resources is to consolidate all forces,” Ms. Shulyak wrote in a post on social media. “This draft law is about our struggle and preservation of Ukrainian statehood.”

Prisoners serving in the army would be integrated into special units for the duration of martial law, meaning that they would not be demobilized until the end of the war. Ms. Shulyak also told a Ukrainian news outlet that only prisoners with under three years left on their sentences would be eligible.

The bill is the latest in a string of recent efforts — including a bill signed into law last month that lowered the draft eligibility age to 25 from 27 — by Ukraine’s government to bolster its exhausted and diminished troops.

Mr. Zelensky said in February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion began more than two years ago. The figure is well below estimates by U.S. officials, who last summer said that nearly 70,000 Ukrainians had been killed.

As the war drags on, Ukraine is struggling to recruit or draft more people into its army. Critics say the official mobilization system has been mired in Soviet-style bureaucracy and corruption, and cases of draft dodging have multiplied in recent months. Gen. Yurii Sodol, the commander of forces in the east, told Parliament last month that in certain sections of the front, Russians outnumber Ukrainians by more than seven to one.

The bill that passed on Wednesday was designed to help solve the troop shortages, according to several lawmakers. David Arakhamia, the head of Mr. Zelensky’s party in Parliament, said that it could result in the mobilization of between 15,000 and 20,000 prisoners, according to Ukrainian news outlets.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in favor: 279 voted to pass it, with 11 abstaining and none voting against it.

“We need people in trenches,” Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Parliament in the opposition European Solidarity party, said in a phone interview after the vote. “Why should businessmen and artists fight and not thieves and petty criminals?”

Both the Soviet Union and Germany also drafted prisoners during World War II, according to Thibault Fouillet, the deputy director of the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies, a French research center.

“This is a traditional wartime practice, both in major wars and in civil or revolutionary wars,” Mr. Fouillet said. “However, these are often temporary measures and operations undertaken when there is a shortage of manpower.”

But the decision to let prisoners serve in the Ukrainian Army could prove controversial. And Mr. Zelensky — who in the past has for months delayed signing sensitive bills, such as the one lowering the draft age — might be reluctant to endorse it, said Oleksandr Musiienko, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Military Legal Studies.

“There is still significant discussion to be had before the bill is signed into law,” Mr. Musiienko said.

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