Syria: NGOs file landmark case against Russian Wagner Group

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Moscow

Three NGOs have filed a legal case in Moscow against Russian private military contractor Wagner over the torture of a detainee in Syria, aiming to hold to account a murky fighting force with links to the Kremlin.

The legal push against Wagner Group on Monday follows a wave of torture-related cases in Europe against officials of the Syrian regime a decade into a punishing war whose tide was turned by Moscow’s military intervention in 2015.

Three prominent advocacy groups from France, Russia and Syria filed the criminal complaint against alleged members of the contractor outfit over the 2017 beheading of a man believed to have deserted from the Syrian army.

The complaint, 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.

Wagner, a shadowy military outfit comprising private fighters linked to the Kremlin’s wars in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East, has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin, 59, who has been hit with US sanctions for meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, denies any association with Wagner.

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, told AFP news agency.

“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, observers say Wagner has in recent years played an increasingly important role in buttressing and realising the Kremlin’s ambitions abroad. —Agencies

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