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Syria: Landmark legal case in Russia brought against Wagner over abuses

Three rights groups are facilitating a legal case against mercenary group over involvement in death of Syrian man in 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus, one of the oldest Greek Orthodox churches in the Syrian capital, in Damascus, 7 January 2020 (AFP)

A Syrian family is attempting to bring a legal complaint against Russian private military contractor PMC Wagner in Moscow, the first such attempt to hold Russian figures accountable for crimes committed in Syria.

The complaint, facilitated by three human rights groups, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Memorial Human Rights Center, focuses on the torture, killing, mutilation of a Syrian citizen by six individuals in the Homs governorate in 2017.

According to a statement from SCM, the man's family is demanding the initiation of criminal proceedings against alleged members of Wagner.

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“Russian law contains an obligation for the state to investigate crimes committed by Russian citizens abroad," said Ilya Novikov, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff, in a statement.

"The Investigative Committee has not, to date, initiated any investigation of the crime in question, even though all of the necessary information was officially communicated to the Russian authorities over a year ago.”

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

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 the US presidential election in 2016, denies any association with Wagner.

'A whole wave of impunity'

But the proceedings represent a rare attempt to bring Wagner out into the open, several years after reports of its 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'

Alexander Cherkasov, Memorial

"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.

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 President Bashar al-Assad's army.

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

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Wagner's 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 Syria's eastern Homs province were Wagner fighters.

The complaint brought on 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 three rights groups 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 SCM, speaking to AFP.

It follows dozens of other cases brought in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway against Syrian officials by around 100 refugees, backed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based group.

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 destabilising Libya.