Three prominent advocacy groups from France, Russia and Syria file criminal complaint over 2017 beheading of a Syrian man.

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.”

Syria intervention

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.

The group was reportedly dispatched alongside Russian warplanes and ground troops following Moscow’s intervention in the war in Syria in September 2015 on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Its 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 eastern Homs province, were Wagner fighters.

In this December 16, 2015, photo Russian S-400 long-range air defence missile systems are deployed at Hemeimeem airbase in Syria [Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP]

‘Moral responsibility’

Ilya Novikov, a lawyer for the Syrian man’s family, said Russia is obliged under its constitution to investigate crimes carried out by Russian nationals abroad, adding that “the Investigative Committee has not, to date, initiated any investigation of the crime in question”.

The complaint on Monday follows dozens brought in Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway against officials in al-Assad’s government by some 100 refugees, backed by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, a Berlin-based NGO.

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.

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