The lawsuit marks the first time that anyone has attempted to hold any member of the Wagner Group responsible for its activities anywhere in the world.
Wagner’s activities in Syria were brought into the spotlight after the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation in 2019 into the alleged involvement of ISIS mercenaries in the horrific murder of a Syrian man described as a deserter from the Syrian army.
In June 2017, a two-minute clip surfaced online showing several Russian-speaking men in uniform brutally beating an unarmed man.
Two years later, Novaya Gazeta obtained additional footage purporting to show what happened to the man after the beatings: he was subjected to further torture, beheaded, mutilated and set on fire.
The newspaper also claimed to have identified the Syrian man, Muhammad A., as well as one of the perpetrators, a Russian man who had been identified as an alleged member of the private military company Wagner. Novaya Gazeta said at the time that the crime took place in northern Syria near the Shaer gas facility.
Novaya Gazeta asked Russia’s main investigative body, the Investigative Committee, to open an investigation into the findings, but this claim was dismissed.
The new case, which was filed by the dead man’s brother, was submitted to the Russian authorities last week by three groups: the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human. Center for Rights in Russia.
Shortly after the Novaya Gazeta report was released, the victim’s brother called the Syrian Center for Media Group, who recognized his relative in one of the videos, expressing his willingness to seek justice for the brutal killing of his brother.
“So far, no court has examined Russia’s responsibility for direct military intervention and for allowing the Wagner Group to use force,” the Memorial Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
This is the first allegation made by a Syrian victim with the support of human rights NGOs [non-governmental organizations] To the Russian authorities in an unprecedented attempt to overcome impunity and bring Russian suspects to justice. ”
NGOs said that Muhammad A., according to his brother, returned to Syria in March 2017 from Lebanon where he was working as a construction worker. Upon his return, Muhammad was arrested by the Syrian army and taken to a recruitment base near Damascus. In their last phone conversation, Muhammad told his brother that he intended to defect from the army and never heard anything from him again.
The prosecutors are calling on the Russian Investigation Commission to open an investigation for “murder, which was committed with extreme brutality by a group of persons.” The committee has not yet commented on the request. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that he was aware of media reports on the matter but had referred the question to the investigation committee.
The investigation committee did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.
PMCs are illegal under Russian law, but Wagner has been playing an increasingly prominent role in advancing Russia’s foreign policy goals off the books.
“There is a series of conflicts that are often similar [Russia-linked] Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of Memorial, told CNN that the actors are involved but are never prosecuted. “Since there are no investigations, no sanctions, we are having this chain of impunity, which spans the history of Russia since at least the Chechen wars.”
Russian open-source intelligence groups, such as the Conflict Intelligence Team, which has been investigating Wagner’s activities for years, previously told CNN that the unit’s ambiguous legal status allowed Russia to enjoy reasonable denial when it came to reporting the numbers of missing soldiers in the Syrian conflict. And also to avoid international liability.
In 2019, Putin admitted the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, but denied that they were supported in any way by the government, adding that they were solving “issues of an economic nature” such as exploring or recovering oil fields.
“These people are risking their lives and this is generally a contribution to fighting terrorism … But this is not the Russian state, and it is not the Russian army,” he said.
CNN and other outlets reported that Prigozhin-linked companies have secured lucrative deals in Wagner’s countries of expansion, such as guarding and exploring oil and gas fields in Syria or obtaining permits to extract diamonds and other precious metals across Africa.