ALMATY -- Observers in Kazakhstan are urging law enforcement agencies to crack down on the Wagner Group after a Kazakh student studying in Siberia was found fighting in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force headed by Kremlin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been recruiting fighters from prisons in Russia since last summer.
As recruitment from prisons drops, however, the group appears to be looking elsewhere for cannon fodder.
Margulan Bekenov, 23, a Kazakh undergraduate at Tomsk State University in Siberia, was abducted by unknown persons at the end of March, Siberia.Realities, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Siberia service, reported April 24.
The young man's mother, Almira Bekenova was able to track down her son in April at a Wagner base in the small town of Molkino, Russia, near Krasnodar.
She learned that her son had not signed a contract with the mercenary group, but when she tried to collect her son, men in uniform "physically" prevented her from doing so.
Bekenov's situation "is equivalent to a prisoner being escorted under guard", Col. (ret.) Magzhan Kakharmanov, a veteran of the Kazakh army and Bekenov's uncle, told Siberia.Realities.
"It's all illegal. Illegal detention. Illegally involving him in this mercenarism," he said.
Bekenova told relatives that when she found her son, he was "haggard, in poor condition, and not dressed for the weather".
A few days later, she discovered that he had been sent to the front in Ukraine.
She now does not talk to the press out of fear that publicity could harm her son.
Migrants, students 'in danger'
Wagner later published a video of Bekenov in which he said he joined the group voluntarily. His relatives remain unconvinced.
Deteriorating relations between Prigozhin and the Russian Defence Ministry have made it difficult for him to recruit prisoners in Russia, forcing him to switch his focus to young men in difficult situations, said Kakharmanov.
The easiest place for such recruiting is in Central Asia, he said.
"According to unconfirmed sources, some of [Prigozhin's] recruiters are circulating in several cities of Kazakhstan," he said.
"Whom do they catch? The hardest-up men, plus immigrants from Central Asia, guest workers, students and some restless vagrants."
"Remember how many cases [of abuse and desperation] there were," said Kakharmanov, referring to a mass shooting at a Belgorod province draft bureau, which Russian authorities blamed on two Tajiks who did not want to join the Russian army, and to disappearances of Kyrgyz men who were working in Russia one day and fighting in Ukraine the next.
"Men ended up there out of hopelessness," said Kakharmanov.
"Warn your relatives who have children studying in Russia," said Dulat Bekenov, another uncle of Margulan.
"They are in danger. At any moment they, too, could be recruited and sent to die," he said.
'Not your war'
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aibek Smadiyarov warned Kazakhs against participating in the war in Ukraine, which is a crime under Kazakh law.
"All citizens who intend to join or are contemplating joining the ranks [of Wagner] risk from 5 to 9 years in prison," Smadiyarov said in remarks April 24. "It is not romantic there like they imagine. And I want to say, guys, this is not your war. Be careful. Think about your family".
Bekenov, who ended up in the ranks of Wagner, will face criminal charges in Kazakhstan, said Smadiyarov.
The National Security Committee (KNB) of Kazakhstan is investigating cases of Kazakhs fighting in Ukraine, according to news website Tengri News, which cited the KNB press office.
"Currently, KNB investigative units are looking into 10 criminal cases of participation by citizens [of Kazakhstan] in the armed conflict or hostilities on Ukrainian territory," the KNB said in mid-April.
"It's no secret that the Wagnerites are collecting 'cannon fodder' not only in Russia but also in other countries, including Kazakhstan," Ruslan Nazarov, an international relations specialist based in Astana, told Caravanserai.
"Our security agencies need to get involved and stop these efforts in our country," he said.
Wagner mercenaries are not interested in complying with laws or human rights, said Nazarov: "They care more about completing the assigned missions."
"They aren't squeamish about any methods, as they try to replenish their ranks with new men who are daily sent to the slaughter in Ukraine."
"They are already kidnapping our citizens. This is a serious wake-up call," said Aygerim Suleimenova, an activist with the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. "What is this if not terrorism?"
"Everyone knows that Wagner is sending new recruits to ... certain death. No one in their right mind would agree to this," said Suleimenova. "That's why they have to resort to pressure and even kidnappings."