Zambian killed in Ukraine was prisoner Russia pardoned: Official

Foreign Affairs Minister Stanley Kakubo said Russia told him Lemekhani Nyirenda joined the war in Ukraine in exchange for amnesty.

Russian soldiers with trucks in Ukraine
Russian army soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine since February 2022 [File: Olexandr Chornyi/AP]

Russia had pardoned an imprisoned Zambian student so he could join the fight in Ukraine, where he was killed on the front lines, according to the southern African country’s foreign affairs minister.

Minister Stanley Kakubo said on Friday that Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, told him by telephone that Lemekhani Nyirenda was pardoned on August 23 to join the military operation, in exchange for an amnesty.

Russia previously announced that 23-year-old Nyirenda had been killed on the battlefield in Ukraine in September, prompting Zambia to ask how he had ended up fighting in the war.

“We were informed that Russia allows for prisoners to be provided an opportunity for pardon in exchange for participation in the special military operation,” Kakubo said.

According to Zambian authorities, Nyirenda was in Russia studying nuclear engineering at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute.

He received a jail term in April 2020 of nine years and six months for a drug offence and had been serving his sentence in Moscow when he was “conscripted” to fight, his father said.

Minister Kakubo said Nyirenda’s remains had arrived in Moscow on Friday and were expected in Zambia on Sunday.

Russia has also informed Zambia that money owed to Nyirenda, together with all the documentation relating to his amnesty, recruitment and death, would be handed to a Zambian representative who would accompany the body, the minister said.

In November, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin – also a close ally of President Vladimir Putin – admitted he recruited Nyirenda from prison claiming the Zambian willingly agreed to go and fight against Ukraine.

Prigozhin said at the time that Nyirenda died a “hero” and was “one of the first to break into the enemy trenches on September 22”.

Prior to Nyirenda’s death, the government had not been aware that the student had been recruited, Kakubo said.

The Wagner group has launched large recruitment drives in Russian prisons, looking to send more fighters into Ukraine to support the faltering Russian invasion that began on February 24.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies