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Landmark legal case filed against Russian mercenaries

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The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Syrian citizen, seeks to highlight the murky activities of the Syrian government arms rental group with Kremlin links. It is said that Wagner was deployed in Syria alongside Russian forces, who intervened in the conflict to help President Bashar al-Assad’s army in 2015.

The lawsuit represents the first time anyone has tried to hold any member of the Wagner group responsible for their activities around the world.

The announcement of the flagship case on Monday coincided with the day of the 10th anniversary of the Syrian civil war in which Wagner’s presence has been well documented by CNN, including the deadly U.S. airstrikes against Russian fighters outside Deir Ezzor in 2017.

Wagner’s activities in Syria continued to be the protagonists after Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation in 2019 into the alleged involvement of the group’s mercenaries in the horrific murder of a Syrian man who was described as a deserter from the Syrian capital. Syrian army.

In June 2017, a two-minute clip appeared online showing several Russian-speaking men wearing military uniforms brutally beating an unarmed man.

Two years later, Novaya Gazeta obtained additional images to show what happened to the man after the beating: he was tortured and beheaded, his body mutilated and burned.

The newspaper also claimed to have identified the man, Syrian Mohammed A., as well as one of the perpetrators, a Russian man identified as an alleged member of Wagner’s private military company. The killing took place in northern Syria, near the al-Shaer gas facility, Novaya Gazeta said at the time.

Novaya Gazeta asked Russia’s main investigative body, the Committee of Inquiry, to open an investigation into the findings, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

The new case, initiated by the dead man’s brother, was presented to 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 Rights Center of Russia.

Shortly after the Novaya Gazeta report was released, Syria’s SCM group was contacted by the victim’s brother, who identified his relative in one of the videos, expressing his willingness to seek justice for the brutal death of the victim. his brother.

“So far, no court has examined Russia’s responsibility in direct military intervention and in allowing the Wagner group to use force,” the Memorial Center for Human Rights said in a statement.

“This is the first claim filed 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 the Russian suspects to justice. ”

According to his brother, Mohammed A. returned to Syria in March 2017 from Lebanon, where he worked as a construction worker, NGOs said. On his return, Muhammad was arrested by the Syrian military and taken to a base for the recruitment service near Damascus. In his last telephone conversation, Mohammed told his brother that he intended to deviate from the army and that he would never know about it again.

The plaintiffs are asking the Russian Committee of Inquiry to open an investigation into allegations of “murder committed with extreme brutality by a group of people.” The committee has so far not commented on the request. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday he was aware of media reports on the matter, but referred the matter to the Committee of Inquiry.

The Committee of Inquiry did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

Private military companies are illegal under Russian law, but Wagner has been playing an increasingly prominent role in advancing Russia’s foreign policy goals abroad.

CNN previously reported on Wagner’s activities in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya i Mozambique. Lawsuit groups said the unit “is known to have committed serious human rights violations against civilians, sometimes with extreme cruelty.”

“There is a chain of conflicts where it is often the same [Russia-linked] actors are involved, but they are never prosecuted, “Alexander Cherkasov, president of Memorial, told CNN.” Because there are no investigations or punishments, we get this chain of impunity, which drags the whole history of Russia from the Chechen wars at least. “

Russian open source intelligence groups, such as the Conflict Intelligence Team, which for years investigated Wagner’s activities, previously told CNN that the unit’s ambiguous legal status allows Russia to enjoy of a plausible denial in reporting the as well as to avoid international liability.

In 2019, Putin acknowledged the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, but denied that the government would support them in any way, adding that they resolve “issues of an economic nature” such as exploring or recovering oil fields.

“These people risk their lives and, in general, this is also a contribution to the fight against terrorism … but it is not about the Russian state, nor about the Russian army,” he said.

The Wagner group has no registered entity and CNN cannot request any immediate comment from the mercenaries mentioned in the Novaya Gazeta report. Wagner PMC is believed to be funded by a Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, sanctioned by the United States Treasury in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin repeatedly denied any connection to Wagner.

CNN and other outlets reported that companies linked to Prigozhin have reached lucrative deals in countries with Wagner deployments, such as monitoring and exploring oil and gas fields in Syria or obtaining permits to excavate diamonds and other minerals. beautiful throughout Africa.

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