Three nongovernmental organizations based in France, Syria, and Russia have announced a legal case in Moscow against the Vagner Group, a Russian military contractor with indirect ties to the country's political elite, over the 2017 torture of a detainee in Syria.
"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 International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center said in a joint statement on March 15.
They said that the brother of a Syrian citizen who was "tortured, killed, and had his corpse mutilated by six individuals in 2017 in Homs Governorate" filed the criminal complaint before Russia's Investigative Committee on March 11.
The complaint, which was facilitated by the FIDH, the SCM, and Memorial, "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," the statement said.
The case not expected to lead to any convictions since the Vagner Group is believed to be headed by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.
Although private military companies are illegal in Russia, observers say Vagner has in recent years played an increasingly important role in buttressing the Kremlin's ambitions abroad.
The group has been active for several years in combat operations in different regions, including in Syria, Libya, and other parts of Africa.
In their statement, the three NGOs cited "numerous reports of serious human rights violations committed by the group against civilians, at times with extreme cruelty."
"The ambiguous legal status of [Vagner] 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 members of the military contractor, they added.
The statement cited one of the lawyers for the Syrian plaintiff as saying that Russian law "contains an obligation for the State to investigate crimes committed by Russian citizens abroad."
'Chain Of Impunity'
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,” said the lawyer, Ilya Novikov.
Memorial’s chairman Aleksandr Cherkasov said a complaint submitted by the Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta newspaper one year ago was "ignored."
“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," Cherkasov added.
Along with Iran, Russia has provided crucial military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s civil war, which began with a crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011. More than 400,000 people have since been killed and millions displaced.
The United States have hit Prigozhin with sanctions for meddling in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016 and in connection with Russia’s role in Libya's civil war.