Lawsuit targets Russian mercenary company over role in Syria

The brother of a Syrian man killed by suspected Russian mercenaries has called on the authorities in Moscow to investigate the incident and the possible role played by the Wagner Group, a mercenary group run by one of Vladimir Putin’s close allies.

Video footage published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta shows a group of six men torturing a Syrian detainee. The victim, Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah, is believed to have deserted from President Bashir al-Assad’s army and then been captured.

The soldiers, speaking in Russian, cut off Abdullah’s head and arms, hang up his body and set it alight. Arabic news outlets believe the killing took place in spring 2017 at an oilfield in Homs province. Wagner mercenaries had recently driven Isis fighters from the area.

On Monday the victim’s family and three campaign groups launched a landmark legal case attempting to force Russian state investigators to examine whether the soldiers involved worked for the Wagner Group, and to bring them to justice.

The US says the Wagner Group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an indicted oligarch who financed the notorious St Petersburg troll factory that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The FBI has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

The Wagner Group has allegedly sent mercenaries to Syria, Ukraine and Libya, as well as to other African countries where the Kremlin has a growing strategic interest. Prigozhin denies Wagner exists. Officials in Moscow have so far refused to question the mercenaries seen in the video, who have been identified by Russian media.

“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, the veteran Moscow-based rights organisation, told the AFP news agency.

He added: “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.”

The International Federation for Human Rights, Memorial and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression said they had evidence that clearly linked at least one defendant to Wagner.

“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, the director of the Syrian Center.

The same day as the case was lodged, unknown attackers targeted Novaya Gazeta’s Moscow office. “In the morning a chemical attack was carried out on the building where our editorial office is located,” said the independent media outlet’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov.

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

Members of the group were reportedly dispatched alongside Russian warplanes and ground troops following Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015 on the side of Assad.

Moscow has never confirmed reports of Wagner mercenaries. It said on Monday that since its operation was launched in Syria, 112 Russian troops had died in combat operations.

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