By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) - The founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary group fighting in Ukraine has asked parliament to ban negative media reports about his men by amending the criminal code to make "discrediting" his fighters punishable by up to five years in jail.
Yevgeny Prigozhin made the request in a letter sent to Vycheslav Volodin, the hawkish chairman of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. Prigozhin's press service published the letter on Tuesday.
Volodin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, is already advocating amending the criminal code to allow the authorities to confiscate the property and assets of Russians living abroad who publicly insult Russia and its armed forces.
Mercenary boss Prigozhin, who has adopted a high public profile since the war in Ukraine began in an apparent effort to curry favour with Putin and enhance his own prospects, has drawn attention to the major role his fighters have played in helping seize some towns and villages and has frequently criticised Russia's own top military brass.
In his letter, he accused "certain media, bloggers and Telegram channels" of discrediting some of his men, including convicts he has recruited into Wagner's ranks, by presenting them as "bad guys and criminals".
That was a reference to the fact that the sometimes grisly and murderous past of some convicts recruited by Wagner has been publicised. The men took up his offer to fight in Ukraine for six months as they were promised a pardon if they survived, even if they had originally been jailed for life.
Prigozhin asked parliament to criminalise any actions or publications that discredited such individuals and to outlaw public disclosure of their criminal past.
"In essence, the people who are on the most dangerous parts of the frontline and who are risking their lives every day and dying for the Motherland are being portrayed as second-class people, stripping them of the right to atone for their guilt before society and consciously playing down their achievements," Prigozhin wrote in the letter.
There was no immediate reaction to his request from Volodin.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sergei Mironov, leader in parliament of the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, criticised two Russian regions he said were refusing to bury Wagner fighters killed in Ukraine with military honours.
"These are unconscionable decisions because you can't judge what a person did in the past," said Mironov.
"Especially if the person died with a weapon in his hands defending our Motherland!"
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)