OSLO -- A man who claims to have been a member of Russian mercenary group Wagner is seeking asylum in Norway after a harrowing escape across the border, his lawyer said Monday (January 16).
Twenty-six-year-old Andrei Medvedev was arrested for illegally crossing the border to Norway near the Pasvikdalen valley last week.
"He has applied for asylum in Norway," said Tarjei Sirma-Tellefsen, chief of staff for the police in Finnmark.
Rights group Gulagu.net has published interviews with Medvedev, including one after his crossing into Norway, where he detailed his dramatic escape.
"When I was on the ice (at the border), I heard dogs barking, I turned around, I saw people with torches, about 150 metres away, running in my direction," he said.
"I heard two shots, the bullets whizzed by," he added.
His lawyer Brynjulf Risnes told AFP on Monday that after crossing the border, Medvedev had sought out locals and asked that they call the police.
Risnes said his client was no longer in custody, but at a "safe place" while his case was being analysed, and that he was currently suspected of "illegal entry" into Norway.
"If he gets asylum in Norway that accusation will be dropped automatically," Risnes said.
Speaking out against Wagner
"He has declared that he is willing to speak about his experiences in the Wagner Group to people who are investigating war crimes," the lawyer said, adding that Medvedev alleged he had served as a unit commander for between five and 10 soldiers.
According to Gulagu.net, he originally signed a four-month contract in early July 2022 and claims to have witnessed executions and reprisals against those who refused to fight and wanted to leave.
According to Risnes, Medvedev said "he experienced something completely different from what he was expecting" after joining the private mercenary group, which has been at the forefront of key battles in Ukraine.
Wanting to leave, he said that his contract was extended without his consent.
"He understood that there was no easy way out, so that's when he decided to just run," Risnes said.
Upon returning to Russia, Medvedev made contact with rights groups, including Gulagu.net which advocates for prisoners in Russian detention.
In September, Kremlin-linked founder Yevgeny Prigozhin disclosed for the first time that he founded the Wagner group in 2014 to fight in Ukraine and acknowledged its presence in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
The mercenary group first surfaced that year when Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine when "little green men" with no insignias played a key role in the seizure.
Wagner mercenaries then entered Syria in 2015 when the Russian military fought to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The mercenaries have since popped up in other hotspots of strategic importance to Russia, most notoriously in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique and Venezuela.
In recent months, Wagner is understood to have recruited inmates en masse from Russian prisons to fight on front lines in Ukraine with the promise of reduced sentences and high salaries.
As the group has expanded -- and with mercenaries overtaxed in Russia's latest war in Ukraine -- its tactics have become more brutal.
Wagner mercenaries are accused of torture, rape, extortion, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities.
In early December, US legislators introduced a bill to designate the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation.
The legislation lists the militants' crimes, including the torture of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, in March 2022, as well as similar crimes in Mali, Sudan and the CAR.
"The Wagner Group has also murdered and threatened journalists, kidnapped children, deployed nerve agents against civilians, committed acts of torture, and engaged in rape and sex trafficking of women and children," said a statement announcing the proposed law.