Activists file landmark Syria case against Kremlin-linked guns-for-hire outfit

Advocacy groups from France, Russia, and Syria accuse Wagner Group fighters over torture of a Syrian detainee, but powerfully connected Russian firm unlikely to face convictions

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, around his factory outside St. Petersburg, Russia, September 20, 2010. (Alexei Druzhinin/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, around his factory outside St. Petersburg, Russia, September 20, 2010. (Alexei Druzhinin/Pool Photo via AP, File)

MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) — Three NGOs on Monday announced a landmark legal case in Moscow against Russian mercenary group Wagner over the torture of a detainee in Syria, aiming to hold to account a murky fighting force with Kremlin links.

The legal push against private military contractor Wagner Group follows a wave of torture-related cases in Europe against Syrian regime officials a decade into a punishing war whose tide was turned by Moscow’s military intervention in 2015.

Three prominent advocacy groups from France, Russia and Syria filed the criminal complaint against alleged members of the contractor outfit over the beheading in 2017 of a man believed to have deserted from the Syrian army.

Wagner has been linked to a powerful ally of President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the case probing potential “war crimes” is unlikely to lead to any convictions.

Russian military vehicles drive through the town of Darbasiyah in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province along the Syria-Turkey border on February 24, 2020. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Prigozhin, 59, who has been hit with US sanctions for meddling in US presidential elections in 2016, denies any association with Wagner.

But the proceedings represent a rare attempt to bring Wagner out into the open, several years after reports of their deployment in conflicts across the Middle East and Africa first emerged.

“This complaint is important because we aren’t just dealing with a single crime. This is a whole wave of impunity,” Alexander Cherkasov, a senior member of Memorial — one of the groups bringing the claim — told AFP.

Syria intervention

“People who escape punishment after carrying out crimes like this are given the opportunity to repeat them in places like Chechnya, eastern Ukraine and Syria. In the end they come back to Russia and walk on the streets among us,” Cherkasov said.

Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the board of the main Russian human rights NGO Memorial, in Moscow on March 12, 2021. ((Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Although private military companies are illegal in Russia, Wagner has in recent years played an increasingly important role in buttressing and realizing the Kremlin’s ambitions abroad, observers say.

The group was reportedly dispatched alongside Russian warplanes and ground troops following Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015 on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Its presence there was forced into the spotlight in 2018 when independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that several Russian-speaking men who executed and mutilated a detainee on video in the eastern Homs province were Wagner fighters.

The complaint brought Monday on behalf of the victim’s family aims to force Moscow to bring criminal proceedings against the alleged members of the private contractor group, in what NGOs say is the first case of its kind.

In a statement, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Memorial, and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression said they had filed evidence that clearly links at least one defendant to Wagner.

‘Moral responsibility’

“The Russian government must assume its legal and moral responsibilities for the violations committed by its army, including the private entities involved in external military operations under its command, such as the Wagner Group,” said Mazen Darwish, director-general and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Ilya Novikov, one of the Syrian family’s lawyers, said Russia is obliged under its constitution to investigate crimes carried out by Russian nationals abroad.

But, he added, “the Investigative Committee has not, to date, initiated any investigation of the crime in question”.

Screen capture from video of Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish. (YouTube)

The complaint on Monday follows dozens brought in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway against officials in Assad’s regime by around 100 refugees, backed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based NGO.

Across Europe, activists are joining forces with police and UN investigators in collecting testimonies, sifting through tens of thousands of photos, videos, and files of one of the best-documented conflicts in history.

European officials have also taken note of Wagner’s role in conflicts beyond Syria, slapping sanctions on Prigozhin last year for destabilizing Libya.

Cherkasov said the mercenary group’s work and their lack of legal oversight harkens back to a similarly dark period in Russia’s recent past, namely Moscow’s wars in Chechnya.

“This is a repeat of what happened 20 years ago, when enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions committed during the armed conflict in the Northern Caucasus were likewise not investigated,” he said.

“Today, we see another link in this chain of impunity.”

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