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

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 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.”

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.