12 March 2022, Syria, Kansafra: Buildings are seen destroyed after Russian airstrikes on the village of Kansafra. (Photo by Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Analysis

Holding Wagner to Account for Russian Abuses in Syria

اقرأ المقال بالعربي.

On the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution last year, a complaint against the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner was filed in Russian courts, the first case ever brought against the group. Almost a year later, the court found that the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which had the power to open an investigation into the torture and murder of a Syrian civilian by members of the Wagner Group, was not obligated to take action. On February 9, 2022, the Moscow City Court upheld this decision for the Investigative Committee not to open the investigation into war crimes (torture), murder, and mercenarism in Syria. The decision marked the end of this effort to seek justice for Syrians through the Russian court system, yet the case serves as a critical steppingstone in larger efforts to hold perpetrators of international crimes and human rights violations in the Syrian context accountable through emerging alternative methods of justice.

Since the onset of Russian military operations in Syria to uphold the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2015, the Russian state has perpetrated international crimes against Syrians, committing massacres; targeting civilian sites including schools, hospitals, and religious institutions; targeting medical, media, and civil defense personnel; and utilizing illegal weapons like cluster munitions—enabling the Syrian regime in a similarly extensive list of violations. To commit these violations, it has also deployed mercenary groups like PMC Wagner. Russia initially denied the existence of groups like Wagner entirely, and the group remains unregistered in Russia today. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged the presence of PMCs in Syria, but emphasized that they were not affiliated with the state.

In part due to Russia’s veto and other efforts before international bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to impede accountability for crimes in Syria, we have instead seen the prosecution of war crimes committed by individuals in third party states under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The PMC structure that Wagner functions under allows Russia to control Wagner, yet distance itself from it, making the pursuit of accountability for Wagner’s crimes particularly difficult. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)––which has jurisdiction over violations of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ratified by the Russian Federation) ––requires that all effective remedies inside Russia first be exhausted. It is in this regard, and despite the widespread expectation at the time of the complaint’s filing that the Russian court would refuse to open an investigation into Wagner, that the complaint was a necessary initial undertaking.

The Case

In 2017, a video published online by an unknown source showed five men in military uniform speaking Russian and violently beating a Syrian man in civilian clothes. The video was widely circulated in 2019 after an extensive version showing the men torturing, beheading, and mutilating the body of Syrian civilian Mohammad Taha Ismail al-Abdullah, more commonly known as Hamadi Bouta, was published online. Following an extensive investigation, the independent Russian media group, Novaya Gazeta, became the first to identify the perpetrators in the video as members of Wagner Group. Based on evidence collected from the media group’s investigation, three NGOs, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human Rights Center, drafted and submitted a complaint filed by Bouta’s brother on behalf of the victim against members of PMC Wagner.

The complaint sought the initiation of a criminal investigation based on alleged violations of the Russian Criminal Code which states that a Russian citizen must be criminally punished domestically for crimes committed outside Russian territory including murder, war crimes, and mercenarism. Since neither the men identified in the video nor Wagner had been tried in Syria, the complaint argued an investigation into the role of Wagner in Syria must be undertaken in the Russian context. Following several complaints, applications requesting information, and postponement, on January 18, 2022, the Basmanny court in Moscow announced its rejection of the complaint, claiming that the Investigative Committee’s lack of action concerning this case was justified. The court claimed the complaint did not establish elements of a crime and that the argument that Russian citizens were involved in the murder was suggestive. The decision was appealed in the Moscow City Court, which announced shortly after that it would uphold the decision on similar grounds.

The existing judicial path for this particular case within Russia has been exhausted, and the process has demonstrated that cases of this form will likely be unsuccessful. Considering the complaint’s broader goal of furthering the case through the EctHR, however, the Russian court’s decision was not unexpected. As Ilya Novikov, one of the lawyers who filed the complaint, said, “What the Russian courts tell us doesn’t make much difference to us. Our conversation on the merits of the case with the Russian authorities will go through Strasbourg (ECtHR) one way or another.”

Implications 

The implications of the complaint stretch beyond gaining the right to apply to the ECtHR in illustrating the Russian state’s unwillingness to pursue accountability for these crimes. Within Russia, it has been used to garner public interest on the topic of intervention in Syria; public support for intervention continues to decrease, though it has not manifested in an anti-war movement, particularly in light of Russian reliance on mercenaries rather than state forces. The complaint has also advanced the budding conversation on mercenary groups’ unofficial status in Russia, considering their increased involvement in interventions abroad. Previously, the discourse on Wagner’s status within Russia had been dominated by former mercenaries and their families seeking similar, if not the same, rights afforded to state-sanctioned fighters furthering Russia’s objectives abroad. This case adds to that discourse the perspective of Syrian victims of human rights abuses at the hands of these mercenaries.

Despite the positive advancement, these conversations inside Russia remain relatively limited, with the repression of human rights activists and political dissidents intensifying. The Memorial Human Rights Center, the only Russian NGO of the three behind the complaint, was a recent target of the Foreign Agents Law. One of the most prominent human rights organizations in Russia, it was forced to close in late 2021. Thus, complaints like the one at hand also underscore the dire situation of human rights defenders and political dissidents within Russia.

The nature of this case points to the complexity of holding non-state actors accountable for human rights violations. Most current legal systems are not equipped to handle the changing ways of war, which increasingly relies on proxies and paramilitary forces. Undoubtedly, holding accountable perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations, particularly when those perpetrators continue to enjoy power, is a difficult and limited process. The justice measures attempted here, and demonstrated in other cases throughout Europe, offer at least one avenue by which to address violations. As the first case of its kind, it has opened the potential not only to address the impunity mercenaries enjoy in the Syrian context, but the impunity demonstrated in Chechnya, Libya, Ukraine, and elsewhere as well.

Legal measures are not the only avenue by which to address impunity for PMCs. U.S. sanctions targeting Yevegeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked businessman believed to be financing Wagner PMC, sought to do just that. While the U.S. sanctions were in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, the Syrian case featured in this analysis was cited in the European Union decision to hand down sanctions to the Wagner Group, along with three companies, and seven individuals connected to it, for serious human rights abuses. Most recently, the United Kingdom also sanctioned the Wagner Group, as it had been reportedly tasked with assassinating Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Looking Ahead

The NGOs and lawyers that submitted the complaint have yet to take public-facing next steps. However, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) has been clear that it will continue to seek accountability for Bouta’s family. Following the court’s decision, founder and director of SCM, Mazen Darwish, announced, “We will continue our efforts seeking justice for [the]…family and all other victims, as further legal options are to be explored, not necessarily through Russian courts.” 

While this case did not result in a Russian-led investigation of the Wagner Group, it was a necessary first step in holding accountable those responsible for the torture and murder of a civilian. For Syrians seeking justice, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Syrians have been subject to torture at the hands of proxy forces, non-state actors (PMCs, ISIL, and others), and the Syrian state not just during this conflict––there are generations of Syrians who have yet to receive justice for crimes committed under Assad’s regime prior to the Syrian revolution, and during the reign of Hafez al-Assad. There are significant obstacles to accountability, and this certainly rings true in the case of mercenaries. This case has demonstrated that pursuing accountability for the crimes of PMCs will involve creativity and a vision for the future and must be supplemented using alternative tools and avenues.