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Exclusive: Russian Prisoner Released To Fight In Ukraine Implicated In Murder, Attempted Rape Of Civilians

In November 2022, Russian soldiers abducted two men in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region and took them into a forest, where they were shot in the head and left dead or dying.

The killings of Mykola Khomnikov, 32, and Serhiy Holubenko, 40, are among the dozens of cases in Zaporizhzhya alone of civilians killed by Russian forces in noncombat situations since Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to Ukrainian prosecutors,

Investigating these cases is challenging, given the Ukrainian authorities' inability to access areas occupied by the Russian military.

But a new investigation by Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, has obtained internal Russian military records that reveal previously undisclosed details about the killings of the two men, who Ukrainian prosecutors say were civilians with no connection to the Ukrainian military.

Based on these records -- including an internal Russian military report and voice messages from a senior Russian officer's account on Telegram -- journalists learned that the alleged murderer was among the tens of thousands of Russian prisoners the Kremlin has enlisted to fight in Ukraine.

WATCH: With Russia's Defense Ministry recruiting many thousands of convicts to fight in Ukraine, prison populations in Russia have dwindled, leading officials to close some facilities.

Russia Begins Closing Prisons As Both Convicts And Staff Head To War
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The suspect, a military driver named Batraz Slanov, had been sentenced to a year in prison just two days before Putin launched the invasion on February 24, 2022, and within months he was fighting in Ukraine, according to internal Russian Interior Ministry records reviewed by Current Time and Systema, RFE/RL's Russian investigative unit.

The internal Russian military report on the killings of Khomnikov and Holubenko also includes details indicating Slanov attempted to rape a female relative of the two victims.

Lyudmyla Veremiy, deputy head of the village council for the settlement of Novomykhaylivka, where the two victims lived, said other locals had been killed by Russian military personnel as well.

"We know of several cases. For example, a resident of Novomykhaylivka was shot while traveling through the village after curfew," Veremiy said. "We also know about the deaths of two residents of our community who were held captive in basements and then supposedly released -- but their bodies were found in a field in the morning. They also had bullet holes in their heads."

"To tell the truth, I think we will learn of even more such cases after de-occupation," Veremiy added.

'A Bad Incident'

On November 25, 2022, the commander of Russia's 58th Combined Arms Army, Major General Sergei Medvedev, sent a voice message from his Telegram account to his deputy, Vitaly Shopaga, instructing him to report back to him urgently about a "bad incident."

Ukrainian intelligence obtained access to Medevdev's Telegram account and shared its contents with Current Time, which was able to independently confirm their authenticity.

The following day, Shopaga sent a document to Medvedev titled Report On The Murder Of Two Civilians By Officers Of The 503rd Motor Rifle Division.

The report details how Slanov, who was a driver with the division, and several other Russian soldiers had one week earlier visited the homes of local residents in the village of Novomykhaylivka suspected of being Ukrainian military spotters. It says the Russians left the village after finding no supporting evidence.

A few days later, after getting drunk on homemade wine with the same group of Russian soldiers, Slanov decided to interrogate two villagers "with passion," Shopaga wrote in the report to Medvedev, who goes by the call sign Yermak.

Slanov went to the homes of Khomnikov and Holubenko, put them in a car, and along with an acquaintance drove the two men to a forested area in the village. Slanov then "shot both in the head for refusing to confess," the report states.

The report indicates the two victims were killed in the early morning of November 23, 2022, after which Slanov and his acquaintance, also dressed in a military uniform, took Holubenko's wife, who is also Khomnikov's sister, from their home and tried to force her to confess to providing the Ukrainian military with information on Russian forces in the area.

While taking her away, Slanov suddenly stopped the vehicle and ordered her to perform oral sex on him, the report states. After she refused, Slanov passed out, and the woman fled the car.

Slanov eventually returned to his unit and was arrested by the Russian military two days later.

Neither Khomnikov nor Holubenko were Ukrainian military spotters, according to both Veremiy, the village council official, and Mykyta Kovalevskiy, head of the department investigating war crimes at the Zaporizhzhya regional prosecutor's office

"The investigation found that a serviceman of the Russian armed forces abducted two civilians from their own homes and murdered them using automatic firearms," Kovalevskiy told Current Time.

Veremiy described Khomnikov and Holubenko as "typical village guys."

Russian Prisoner Mercenary

Slanov, 34, served in a military formation called Storm, whose ranks include Russian prisoners who enlisted to fight in Ukraine rather than serve out their sentences.

Current Time has reviewed records from a Russian Interior Ministry criminal database showing that Slanov had multiple convictions in Russia, including two cases of theft and multiple drunk-driving incidents resulting in accidents that injured others.

His punishments have included jail time: Most recently two days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when he was sentenced to one year in a maximum-security prison and a four-year suspension of his driver's license, the Interior Ministry records show.

But just months after the sentencing, he joined the Russian military as a division driver despite his convictions for drunk and dangerous driving.

The most recent record of Slanov in the Interior Ministry's database is from January 16, 2023, for the arrest and subsequent killing of two detained civilians. The record, which does not name the victims, lists the criminal charge as the "murder of two or more persons."

Current Time sought to contact Medvedev and his deputy, Shopaga, for comment on the killing of the two civilians in Novomykhaylivka.

Shopaga responded to an inquiry sent via WhatsApp, writing, "You've made a mistake."

When Current Time forwarded Shopaga a segment of the audio conversation with Medvedev, he deactivated his Whatsapp account.

Medvedev did not respond.

RFE/RL's Russian investigative unit, Systema, contributed to this report. Adapted from the original Russian by Baktygul Chynybaeva
  • 16x9 Image

    Iryna Romaliyska

    Iryna Romaliyska is a correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

  • 16x9 Image

    Baktygul Chynybaeva

    Baktygul Chynybaeva is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom based in Prague. She previously worked for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek, and has reported on health care, climate change, education, gender equality, and energy security issues. 

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