The Ghosts of Putin’s Bloody Past Are Back With a Vengeance
The war in Ukraine has reinvigorated efforts to nail the Russian president for alleged atrocities committed elsewhere.
The video shows Russian mercenaries laughing and shouting as they pound a sledgehammer into the bloody hands and feet of a Syrian man, kicking him as he writhes on the ground, screaming in pain. In another clip, the commandos take the torture of their prey to its grisly conclusion: They cut off his head with knives and a trowel and set his body on fire.
The mercenaries from Wagner, a Russian private military contractor linked to the Russian Defense Ministry and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), are accused of murdering Muhammad Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah, also known as “Hamdi Bouta,” in 2017, leaving his family to tread a long and difficult legal path in hopes that someday, someone would be held responsible for the unspeakable violence inflicted on the man they loved.
The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) announcement last week that it would open an investigation into possible war crimes during Moscow’s most recent invasion of Ukraine has many hoping that the Russian military, government officials, and Vladimir Putin himself will be held accountable for the death and destruction now raining down from Russian planes and artillery pieces on Ukrainian cities.
“This investigation opening at the level of the ICC is also major because we know that the ICC would be the only one able to prosecute or consider prosecuting Putin,” Clémence Bectarte, an attorney representing the Bouta family on behalf of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), told The Daily Beast.
Among those looking forward to the possibility of justice for alleged Russian war crimes in the recent invasion are a string of families and attorneys who’ve been waiting years for their opportunity to confront the men they say are responsible for crimes against their loved ones and clients. Family members of those killed by Russian air defense forces—which shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014—and Russian mercenaries in Syria, say they’re hoping their own lengthy legal battles could someday serve as precedents to help Ukrainian plaintiffs get justice in court. They’re also hoping that the recently announced investigation by the ICC could help move their own cases along.
“There are other spaces that I’m sure will be opening in the coming days and weeks with this Western pressure and willingness to focus on the accountability side of what is happening,” Bectarte told The Daily Beast. “Our hope is that many avenues for justice will open for current Ukrainian victims and hopefully will also shed light and provide accountability for the crimes committed by the Russian state and military in Chechnya and Syria.
The pathway for Russian accountability in Ukraine in the wake of the current invasion is much clearer than the options available to those seeking to prosecute Russian war crimes in places like Syria.
Ukraine isn’t a state party to the Rome Statute, the international treaty which created and governs the International Criminal Court (ICC). But after Russia’s invasion in 2014, the Ukrainian government stated that it would accept ICC jurisdiction, giving victims of alleged war crimes a more direct venue for international accountability.
Instead, the Bouta family’s attorneys have had to take a more circuitous route towards accountability through Russian courts. Bectarte and fellow FIDH attorney Mazen Darwish, along with lawyers Ilya Novikov and Piotr Zaikyn filed a criminal case with the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation after the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation in 2019 identifying a former Russian police officer, Stanislav Dychko, as the Wagner mercenary who filmed the torture and murder.
As the attorneys feared, Russia’s investigative committee has thus far refused to take up the case, and efforts to declare their inaction illegal under Russian law have also proved futile.
The Bouta family’s lawyers are hoping that they can ultimately use Russia’s inaction to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which does have jurisdiction over Russia, and not just get justice for Bouta’s family but also set a precedent that could be helpful to Ukrainians now facing a new wave of attacks from Wagner mercenaries.
“What would be really important in this European Court of Human Rights case is that we would try to have the court establish a link between the Wagner group and the Russian state,” says Bectarte.
Wagner, a nominally private military contractor, has acted both as an arm of the Russian military and a private corporation and periodically fought for the Russian government since the first invasion in 2014. European intelligence officials told The New York Times that the Russian military has recently sent hundreds of Wagner troops into Ukraine since the most recent attack, raising fears that the company, known for a string of human rights abuses across the Middle East and Africa, would be unleashed on Ukrainian civilians.
As the family’s lawyers try to move their case forward, they’re also working with Ukrainians to share their experience in bringing cases against Russian forces.
“We are communicating with Ukrainian colleagues and we’re trying to push them to collect evidence and data and to document all of these crimes,” Darwish told The Daily Beast. “We try to share our experiences in documentation and validation and how we can use these as legal evidence.”
But even as Ukraine waits for international courts like the ICC to bring forward cases against Russia amidst the current invasion, the victims of previous attacks on civilians are still waiting for justice.
Piet Ploeg is the chairman of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, which represents families of the 298 civilians killed when a Russian Buk missile system shot down a commercial airliner in 2014 after mistaking it for a Ukrainian military aircraft. Ploeg lost his brother Alex, his sister-in-law, Edith, and his nephew Robert in the attack, which Russia has never admitted to.
He told The Daily Beast that the process of getting an independent court to render a final judgment can be achingly long.
“My parents died two years ago. They were old and they lost their children and grandchild. They didn’t live to see it happen,” he said. “A lot of MH17 next of kin have died in the last eight years. That’s very sad for them that they didn’t get any justice.”
In the case of MH17 families, the Joint Investigative Team—a task force of investigators from a number of countries—has helped prosecutors at The Hague District Court in the Netherlands bring a case against three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian man for their role in the attack. The court is expected to issue a verdict sometime later this year.
Ploeg says he and other families are hoping that Ukrainians could someday hold Russian officials to account for similar offenses on Ukrainian territory.
“We are blessed with independent courts and as far as I can see all next of kin have absolute faith in the judicial system here,” Ploeg says. “For Ukrainians, they need the support of the whole world community.”
“It’s very important for them to keep faith that justice will be served at some point,” Ploeg adds. “War criminals and criminals can’t get away with it.”