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Breaking legal action: Complaint filed in Moscow against Wagner paramilitary fighters, on behalf of Syrian victim


Press-release and Q&A

(Damascus, Moscow, Paris) — Last Thursday, a family member of a Syrian citizen who was tortured, killed, and had his corpse mutilated by six individuals in June 2017 in Homs Governorate filed a criminal complaint in Moscow. The complaint, facilitated by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human Rights Center, demands the initiation of criminal proceedings against alleged members of the so-called Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner.

Lawyers retained by SCM, FIDH, and Memorial, Ilya Novikov and Petr Zaikin, are representing the brother of the victim, Mohamad A.

This litigation is a first-ever attempt by the family of a Syrian victim to hold Russian suspects accountable for serious crimes committed in Syria. The complaint demands the initiation of criminal proceedings on the basis of murder committed with extreme cruelty, with a view to establishing the alleged perpetrators’ responsibility for this and other crimes, including war crimes.

Ilya Novikov, one of the lawyers for the plaintiff, explained: «Russian law contains an obligation for the State to investigate crimes committed by Russian citizens abroad. 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.»

«A complaint submitted by Novaya Gazeta one year ago was ignored," said Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of Memorial Human Rights Center. «This has forced us, human rights defenders, to turn to Russian investigative authorities. Indeed, 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. Today, we see another link in this chain of impunity.’’

PMC Wagner, comprised mostly of Russian nationals under the effective control of the Russian Federation, has been active for several years in combat operations in different regions, including in Syria. There are numerous reports of serious human rights violations committed by the group against civilians, at times with extreme cruelty. The ambiguous legal status of Wagner under Russian law and the denial of factual links pointing to its complete dependence on the Russian authorities, is a way for Russia to shirk its international responsibility for the crimes committed by Wagner members.

Mazen Darwish, director general and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, stated: «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. We know that the networks of political and economic relations of such groups are complex. Nevertheless, it is simply not permissible to regard the blood of Syrians as cheap and think of lost civilian lives as mere collateral damage.»

Mohamad A. (for more photos see below)

Our organisations provide evidence that clearly establishes the identity of one of the defendants and his involvement with Wagner. The victim’s family had left Syria and lost contact with him shortly after his return to the country from Lebanon in the spring of 2017 and his arrest by the Syrian military. The next news they would have about him was from videos broadcast by Syrian and Russian media outlets depicting his torture and the mutilation of his body.

«This complaint is not only a significant step forward towards ensuring a modicum of justice for the family of the victim of this barbaric crime," said Ilya Nuzov, head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. «It also paves the way to holding Russia responsible for this and other crimes committed by its de facto armed forces extraterritorially. A State cannot avoid international responsibility by outsourcing violence to shadowy armed groups like Wagner.»

Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council doubles its responsibility for crimes committed by its military units or by private groups that operate under its effective control. Throughout the 10 years of the Syrian conflict and five years of Russia’s direct military engagement on Syrian territory, Russia has used its permanent membership and veto power to block attempts of international accountability dozens of times.

«Our organisations have worked for months to prepare the case in order to present the Russian judiciary with sufficient evidence that can hold the suspects involved in the crime accountable for their actions. We will also continue to work through all available judicial avenues until justice is achieved," said Clémence Bectarte, coordinator of FIDH’s Litigation Action Group.


What are the facts behind the case?

On 30 June 2017, a video recorded by unknown persons was published on the Internet, displaying a nearly two-minute long video showing several men speaking Russian and dressed in military uniforms violently beating an unarmed man. In 2019, new video footage surfaced online showing additional details of the event: in these new videos, the same man was being beaten, tortured, beheaded and his body was subsequently dismembered and set on fire. In early November 2019, the videos went viral on Twitter, and led to a thorough media investigation, in particular by the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta, which allowed the identification of the victim, a Syrian national, as well one of the suspects, identified as an alleged member of the Wagner Group, and to locate the place where the murder took place: in the vicinity of the al-Shaer gas facility, in Northern Syria.

Shortly after these media revelations, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) was contacted by the brother of the victim, who identified his relative in one of the videos, expressing his willingness to seek justice for the brutal death of his brother.

According to the victim’s brother, in March 2017, the victim, Mohamad A. returned to Syria from Lebanon, where he had spent nearly a year to work in the construction field. He was arrested by the Syrian army upon his return and brought to a military base to undergo training in the northern suburb of Damascus. His brother was able to speak with him when he was still at the base. The victim informed his brother that he was going to be deployed in Homs and that he intended to defect from the Syrian army. He was never heard from again.

On what legal basis was the complaint filed in Moscow?

The complaint was filed before the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, pursuant to article 141 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation.

A previous attempt to compel the opening of a judicial investigation into the death of Mohamad A. was made in November 2019 by Novaya Gazeta, which submitted the content of their investigation and the article published on 20 November 2019 to the Investigative Committee. This request was ignored.

The complaint filed by Mohamad A.’s brother requests the initiation of an investigation into the murder of his brother, as well as the perpetration of possible war crimes, by the Russian suspect, alleged member of the Wagner Group identified by Novaya Gazeta.

Russian courts have jurisdiction over the case pursuant to Article 12 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which states that citizens of the Russian Federation who have committed crimes outside of the Russian Federation against interests protected by the Code «shall be subject to criminal liability in accordance with the Code, unless a decision of a foreign state’s court exists concerning this crime in respect of these persons." «Servicemen of military units of the Russian Federation located beyond the confines of the Russian Federation shall bear criminal liability for their crimes committed on the territories of foreign states under this Code, unless otherwise stipulated by international agreements of the Russian Federation.»

What is the Wagner Group?

The so-called «Wagner Group», an informal association of mostly Russian personnel under the «effective control» of the Russian Federation, has been active for several years in combat operations against military units and is known for committing grave human rights violations against civilians, at times with extreme cruelty. Indeed, it has carried out numerous attacks on civilian facilities and infrastructure in several countries, including armed attacks to capture gas and oil fields in Syria and targeting military units in Eastern Ukraine while fighting on behalf of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Moreover, the group has actively participated in hostilities, or contributed to military operations and the training of fighters, in Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Although Russian law prohibits mercenaries, nor does it regulate private military companies, and despite the denial of the existence of the Group by Russian officials, the number of the Group’s members is at least 2,500, but may be up to 5,000 fighters.

The ambiguous legal status of the group under Russian law and the denial of factual links pointing to its complete dependence on the Russian authorities, is a way to shirk Russia’s international responsibility for the international crimes committed by Wagner’s members.

Why is this complaint important?

Syrian activists and victims of the atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Syria have been working tirelessly since 2011 to obtain accountability.

Despite the gravity and scale of crimes perpetrated in Syria since the brutal repression of the March 2011 uprising that led to close to 10 years of conflict, there are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress. Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute and, despite attempts to obtain a resolution from the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC, Russia and China’s repeated vetoes have prevented the ICC from opening an investigation on Syria.

With the path to the ICC blocked, and no real prospect of independent justice and accountability inside Syria, victims have turned towards other countries — such as Germany, Sweden, France and Spain — to investigate cases based on what is known as «extraterritorial» jurisdiction. Since 2012, Syrian lawyers, individuals and organisations, as well as international human rights organisations, have launched cases in these countries to obtain investigations on torture, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes charges.

While the first series of complaints aimed at denouncing the crimes committed by the Syrian regime, more recent work has focused on building cases against members of non-state armed groups involved in the perpetration of grave human rights violations against the Syrian population.

The responsibility of Russia, through its direct military involvement, as well as by outsourcing violence to the «Wagner Group," has never been addressed by any court of law so far.

This first ever complaint filed by a Syrian victim, supported by human rights NGOs, before Russian courts, is an unprecedented attempt to fill the impunity gap and bring Russian suspects to account.

What happens next?

According to the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation, the Investigative Committee must respond to the complaint within three days from the date of the filing. However, that period could be extended to 10 days, and then to 30 days upon request by the assigned investigator. Our further actions will be in large part determined by the response, or lack thereof, of the Investigative Committee.