Kremlin-backed mercenary soldiers who worked for the Wagner Group could be tested in the Russian courts for the very first time after an all-star team of human rights lawyers filed a case in Moscow accusing the militants of the torture and beheading of a man in Syria.
In a legal criminal complaint announced Monday on behalf of the victim, Muhammad “Hamdi Bouta” Taha al-Abdullah, attorneys representing the victim’s brother allege that six Russian citizens who worked on a contract to secure a Russian-Syrian operated gas plant were behind the 2017 killing. The lawsuit marks the first known attempt to bring to account anyone linked to the highly secretive network of covert operators financed and managed by close inner-circle associates of President Vladimir Putin.
Opponents of the dark money paramilitary outfit hope an attack through the courts—which they expect to take all the way to European Court of Human Rights—will expose the scale of the abuses carried out by the shadowy forces used to conceal the Kremlin’s off-the-books military adventures all over the world. After more than a year of government stonewalling and dodging allegations about the case, advocates for the victim say, Russian authorities will now be forced to go on record no matter what.
“Hopefully, this will open the door for all the crimes committed by the Wagner Group not only in Syria,” said Mazen Darwish, one of several human rights activists pressing for justice in the case and director general of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast on Saturday, Darwish said that the case against the six Wagner Group paramilitaries is being lodged under articles in the Russian criminal code that call for the prosecution of anyone implicated in torture, grievous bodily injury, and murder. “They can’t say that this is just a political issue or propaganda because we are bringing this case in Russian courts, under Russian law. We’re going to Moscow, to their territory, to their courts, and to their jurisdiction,” Darwish said.
Allegations of the Wagner Group’s involvement in the torture and murder of al-Abdullah, who is better known by his nicknames, Hamdi or Hamadi Bouta, first emerged in June 2017 when a two-minute long video clip of the killing surfaced in an anonymous post on a Reddit subchannel popular with military geeks. The post didn’t provide much commentary, only a link to a graphically violent video shot with a shaky hand on a cell phone that showed several Russian speaking men dressed in desert military uniforms taking turns beating a man who has since been identified as Bouta with a sledgehammer.
Lawyers and human rights advocates involved in the Moscow case say the complaint marks an important first step toward bringing Russian mercenaries affiliated with the Wagner Group to account for a host of war crimes committed not only in Syria but Libya and the Central African Republic, where several related firms linked to a well-connected Kremlin insider and a one-time Russian intelligence official have reportedly been operating since at least 2017.
The brief filed on Friday in connection with Bouta’s case contends that the Russian government holds effective control over the Russian private military contingent that killed Bouta during operations at the al-Shaer gas plant.
Known colloquially as the Wagner Group, the contingent has been linked to a network of Russian firms that U.S. and European authorities say are financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key player in Putin’s inner circle known as “Putin’s chef.” Although the Wagner Group has been implicated in several violations of international law, including skirting a UN arms embargo in Libya, the Moscow legal filing on Bouta’s case marks the first time that any official complaint has been brought in court against the private security contingent in connection with an alleged war crime.
Last month, the FBI placed Prigozhin on its Most Wanted list in connection with his alleged role in interfering in American elections in 2016 and 2018, offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest The U.S. government has also sanctioned Prigozhin for his alleged ties to Russian mercenaries affiliated with the Wagner Group.
The legal case in Moscow turns on four separate video clips depicting several Russian-speaking men beating, decapitating, and burning a badly mutilated man at the al-Shaer gas plant, a central node in a multimillion-dollar joint oil and gas deal forged between the Syrian government owned General Petroleum Corporation and Stroytransgaz, a Russian state-run hydrocarbon engineering firm headed by Gennady Timchenko, a longtime Putin associate.
Neither Timchenko nor Prigozhin are expressly named in connection with Bouta’s killing.
Media and think tank reports indicate that natural gas extraction by EvroPolis, a firm Prigozhin holds a stake in according to U.S. authorities, generated about $162 million from al-Shaer and several other nearby gas fields in 2017, the same year Bouta was killed.
Representatives for Stroytransgaz and Prigozhin’s main company Concord Consulting and Management did not respond to requests for comment made before lawyers representing Bouta’s family went public with details of the Moscow court filing on Monday.
After the first video was anonymously posted in June 2017 three more were posted in November 2019 and began circulating widely on Russian social media platforms.
Within days of the second tranche of videos being posted by open source investigators on Twitter, reporters with al-Jessr Press, a Paris-based media outlet that reports on Syria, published the very first account of Bouta’s killing. A few days later, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s only remaining independent daily news outlets, published a report naming Stanislav Dychko as one of several Russian nationals depicted in the video. The report also revealed that at least one of the Russian-speaking men in the video had fought in the embattled region of Donbas in eastern Ukraine before traveling to Syria to work for a contingent affiliated to the Wagner Group.
Bouta was born in August 1986 in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor in a village not far from where one of his alleged assailants, Vlaidslav Apostol, was killed only months after beating Bouta with a sledgehammer. Apostol’s family have reportedly confirmed that he worked as a private security contractor in Syria, and that he was one of several hundred Russians killed in a U.S. airstrike in the northeastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.
After his brief stint in the Syrian Arab Army, Bouta went to work in the construction industry, working primarily as a bricklayer. He married and started a family. When the civil war began, he traveled to Lebanon to find construction work after the situation in Syria deteriorated and large parts of Deir Ezzor came under ISIS control, according to an account of Bouta’s final days given to lawyers by his family.
After working for a time in Lebanon, Bouta decided to return to his family in Deir Ezzor. On March 27, 2017, Bouta traveled across the border from Lebanon into Syria at the Beirut-Damascus crossing with a group of young men from his village. Syrian authorities arrested Bouta as he crossed the border and turned him over to members of the Syrian military. At this point, members of the group Bouta was traveling with notified Bouta’s brother-in-law, who was in Lebanon at the time, that the Syrian military had taken Bouta into custody.
Bouta later got in touch with his brother-in-law directly and told him that members of the Syrian Arab Army had taken him to the al-Draij military camp, a well-known deployment hub for Wagner Group fighters. Before he was killed, Bouta said Russian speaking soldiers had press ganged him and several others in custody at al-Draij into fighting contingents deployed to Homs to seize and protect oil and gas infrastructure.
Syria’s government controls oil, gas, and mineral production and export, and Syria’s General Petroleum Company sets strategy for exploration and development and supervises national subsidiaries, including the Syrian Petroleum Company (SPC) and Syrian Gas Company (SGC). But, as in many other developing countries, Syria’s nationalized energy sector is highly reliant on external backing from foreign firms for capital-intensive upstream investment in exploration and development.
Stroytransgaz, or STG, the company headed by Kremlin-insider Timchenko, is one of the largest such investors, and in February it secured a $22 million production sharing agreement with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, according to The Syria Report, an online journal that tracks economic developments in the country.
Ilya Novikov, one of the Russian attorneys who filed the ground-breaking legal complaint, said in a written statement that he and his co-counsel Petr Zaikin, decided to initiate the case after a demand for Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top prosecutorial body, apparently fell flat.
Novikov said that Novaya Gazeta asked the Investigative Committee to open an inquiry into the murder, but the committee ignored the request. “This has forced us, as human rights defenders, to turn to Russian investigative authorities, Novikov said. “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.”
Mazen Darwish, one of several human rights activists pressing for justice in Bouta’s case and director general of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, said that Russian authorities have about 40 days to respond to the initial court filing.
The case is being lodged jointly by lawyers and advocates associated with Darwish’s organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, and the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris. If for some reason the case does not go forward in Moscow, Darwish said, it is likely that he, Novikov and others will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
In 2018, American authorities filed criminal charges against Prigozhin for alleged financial ties to the internet troll farm accused of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It was unclear, however, whether that case would move forward after federal prosecutors working under the Trump administration dropped charges against Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg-based firm Concord Consulting and Management in connection with the case. But, a federal arrest warrant issued for Prigozhin in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16 would seem to indicate renewed interest at the Department of Justice in seeing Prigozhin brought to account.
Under a 2019 U.S. law known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, anyone connected to war crimes in Syria under Assad’s regime could be subject to sanctions. While it is not clear whether U.S authorities would pursue further sanctions against Prigozhin, Timchenko, or any of the other entities implicated in reporting and legal filings on Bouta’s case the facts certainly suggest that American investigators in Washington will be tracking its outcome closely.