Rights groups file landmark Syria case against Russian mercenaries


Three prominent rights advocacy groups from France, Russia and Syria filed a criminal complaint on Monday against the Russian mercenary group Wagner over the torture of a detainee in Syria, aiming to hold to account a murky mercenary force with Kremlin links.

The landmark legal case in Moscow against the Russian mercenary group Wagner 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.

The three NGOs 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.

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.

“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.”

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, observers say.

The group was reportedly dispatched alongside Russian war planes 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.

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 Centre 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. (Source: Bangkok Post)