(Al Jazeera) Cuban authorities have arrested 17 people on charges related to a human trafficking ring that allegedly lured young Cuban men to fight in Ukraine with the Russian military.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said earlier this week that authorities were working to dismantle the network, which operated in Cuba and Russia to facilitate Cubans joining the war against Ukraine.
“As a result of the investigations, 17 people have been arrested so far, among them the internal organiser of these activities,” Cesar Rodriguez, a colonel with Cuba’s Interior Ministry, said late on Thursday on a TV programme.
Rodriguez did not name any of those accused of participating in the ring but said the group´s leader relied on two people residing on the island to recruit Cubans to fight in exchange for payment on behalf of Russia in Ukraine.
Cuban prosecutor Jose Luis Reyes said those involved in the scandal could be punished with up to 30 years in prison, a life sentence or the death penalty, depending on the severity and type of crimes, which range from human trafficking, fighting as mercenaries and hostile action against a foreign state.
Russia, which has strong political ties with communist-run Cuba, has long been an important destination for Cubans seeking to escape economic stagnation at home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year signed a decree allowing foreigners signing up for military service in the Russian army to receive citizenship via a fast-track procedure.
Cuba says it has no part in the war in Ukraine and that it rejects the use of its citizens as mercenaries.
In May, Russian media reported that several Cubans had signed contracts with Russia’s military and were sent to fight in Ukraine in exchange for Russian passports.
Fighting a Ukrainian counteroffensive with mounting casualties and making no significant battlefield gains in months, Russia had already sought the help of private military forces, such as Wagner Group mercenaries, which had hired fighters directly from Russian prisons.
Wagner also recruited Syrians to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine.
In June, it was reported that an Iraqi citizen, who was recruited from jail, was killed fighting for Wagner in Ukraine.