As he cries out for assist, they taunt him in Russian, drowning out his agonized screams with laughter. In the background of the video, which was uploaded on-line, a nationalist Russian army track, “I am Russian special forces,” performs.

The sufferer on this harrowing novice video is Mohamad, a 31-year-old Syrian building employee and father of 4 younger youngsters, who disappeared on his method dwelling from a job in neighboring Lebanon in March 2017.

Mohamad’s closing phrases have been these of the Shahada, a declaration of his Muslim religion.

The males who killed and decapitated Mohamad scrawled graffiti in Cyrillic on his lifeless chest. It stated “for VDV and reconnaissance,” a reference to the Russian airborne forces.

At least one of many males within the video has been recognized by the unbiased investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as a mercenary from the shadowy Wagner group — a personal army outfit that has hyperlinks to the Kremlin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, often called “Putin’s chef” for his ties to the Russian President.
Rights groups file landmark legal case against Russian Wagner mercenaries Rights groups file landmark legal case against Russian Wagner mercenaries

The Kremlin denies any connections to Wagner and insists that non-public army corporations are unlawful in Russia. Prigozhin has beforehand denied being linked to Wagner. Neither he nor anybody from his corporations would discuss to NCS lately regardless of a number of makes an attempt in search of remark, together with for this report.

“These people risk their lives and by and large this is also a contribution in fighting terrorism … but this is not the Russian state, not the Russian army,” stated President Vladimir Putin in 2019.

Russian forces have been working in Syria since 2015, and there’s substantial proof to point out that Wagner’s presence within the nation is linked to the Russian army deployment.

Analysts say it is inconceivable that Wagner would exist with out Putin’s approval. Indeed, its coaching camp in southern Russia is attached to a Russian special forces base.
Four years after Mohamad’s homicide, three NGOs from Syria, France and Russia filed a landmark legal case against Wagner for the function it allegedly performed within the atrocity, in addition to the perpetration of potential warfare crimes by the lads seen within the video.
The lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Mohamad’s brother, Abdullah. It is the primary time anybody has tried to carry a member of Wagner accountable for what rights teams say is a rising listing of atrocities dedicated by the mercenaries, whose increasing international footprint has allowed Moscow to advance an off-the-books international coverage in locations like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique
Abdullah spoke to CNN from an undisclosed location in order to keep his family, who still live in Syria, safe.Abdullah spoke to CNN from an undisclosed location in order to keep his family, who still live in Syria, safe.

Abdullah, a refugee who fled Syria in 2017, has by no means spoken publicly about his brother’s killing earlier than. He broke his silence in an unique interview with NCS, he says, to attract worldwide consideration to the tragedy that devastated his household.

To shield members of the family nonetheless dwelling in regime-controlled areas of Syria, Abdullah requested that NCS conceal his full id and the situation of the interview.

“My brother is gone, he will never come back,” Abdullah stated. “I want the world to hear about my brother’s case, so these criminals are held accountable.”

Final telephone calls to household

In certainly one of Mohamad’s final telephone calls, in April 2017, he informed Abdullah he had been detained by the regime as he crossed again into Syria, after working in Lebanon for about eight months. He stated he had been taken to Damascus and compelled to affix the army, however that he deliberate to abandon.

Ten days later, Mohamad known as to say he was being despatched to Homs the subsequent day and that he would escape at evening.

It was his final name to his household.

“He said, ‘Give my best to my father and my mother, ask them to forgive me, I am going to do something, I am going to leave, I don’t know if I will be able to get back to you or not,'” Abdullah recalled.

We tell Syria's human stories so that the 'victors' don't write its historyWe tell Syria's human stories so that the 'victors' don't write its history

He stated his brother had requested him to “take care of my wife,” including: “I am entrusting you with my family.”

“It was that kind of talk, it was as if he knew something was going to happen to him,” Abdullah defined.

Mohamad by no means met his youngest daughter.

With the Syrian civil warfare raging, and poor web and telephone connections of their distant village, it was onerous for Mohamad’s household to seek out out what had occurred to him.

It wasn’t till a video exhibiting his torture emerged on-line months later that his family members found the true horror that had befallen him.

“One day a guy from our town sent me a video clip, he said: ‘Watch the video, it could be your brother.’ Of course, I recognized my brother — from his clothes, his voice, his appearance,” Abdullah stated, his voice pained. “He was being tortured by soldiers, they were not Syrian, we did not understand what they were saying.”

As Mohamad writhed in pain, his captors laughed as they tortured him.As Mohamad writhed in pain, his captors laughed as they tortured him.

Abdullah informed different members of the family about what he had seen within the video, however didn’t share it with them, fearing what it could do to their aged mother and father.

“When I saw that first video, I still had hope he was still alive,” he stated. “He was being tortured, but he was alive, he was moving. We were hoping he was still alive and in a hospital.”

Their father traveled to Damascus, looking for his son at hospitals and jails within the Syrian capital.

“About two months later, the second video emerged, that is when we believed our brother died,” the softly spoken 27-year-old, now visibly distraught, informed NCS.

“When I watched the second video [which showed Mohamad being beheaded], I stayed in a room … I did not leave the room for three days. He was not only my older brother. He was my friend. We were always together,” Abdullah stated.

“My (other) brother developed kind of a psychological illness from the videos.”

Landmark authorized case

Wagner’s forces have been used because the tip of the spear in Syria, however their shadowy presence affords Moscow a level of deniability.

In February 2018, a US airstrike killed dozens and injured hundreds of Wagner fighters as they have been advancing in the direction of an oilfield outdoors the border city of Deir Ezzor.
Moscow did every little thing it might to distance itself from the incident, however when bodies of Russian mercenaries started to return home, it turned clear it was a Wagner operation.
The oil field carnage that Moscow doesn't want to talk aboutThe oil field carnage that Moscow doesn't want to talk about

NCS spoke to a supply linked to Wagner who had been to go to the injured fighters as they returned to Moscow. Moreover, within the days following the assault, one unbiased Russian media outlet went to go to the mom of a fighter who died in Syria, she confirmed that her son was not a Russian common soldier.

Russia’s international ministry would solely say that these contractors have been working independently and went to Syria on their very own.

In Syria, using mercenaries relies round an organization known as Evro Polis, which was sanctioned by the US Treasury for being linked to Prigozhin. In February 2018, NCS obtained a copy of a contract between Evro Polis and the Syrian government. The settlement said that Evro Polis will get to maintain 25% of the income from the oil fields if they’re recaptured from insurgent territory. In different phrases, Wagner does the preventing, Evro Polis retains the spoils.

Since Wagner’s footprint has grown throughout the Middle East and Africa, a key launchpad has turn out to be the Russian army base at Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. NCS and different researchers have monitored the frequency of flights originating from Latakia to different theaters throughout the area. One doc obtained by NCS, particulars the settlement made between Yevgeny Prigozhin and a Russian airforce 223rd flight detachment to make use of their planes.

There is rising proof to counsel that Mohamad’s case could also be simply the tip of the iceberg.

'It was our children they killed''It was our children they killed'
A NCS investigation in June uncovered proof that Russian mercenaries were committing war crimes and human rights abuses within the Central African Republic (CAR), in accordance with a number of witnesses and neighborhood leaders.

The Russian authorities denied the allegations and insisted the contractors in CAR are “unarmed and do not take part in hostilities.” The CAR authorities additionally denied the allegations however stated an inquiry would set up the info.

News of the legal action launched in March — by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human Rights Center in Russia — coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Syrian rebellion.

“The complaint … is an unprecedented attempt to fill the impunity gap and bring Russian suspects to account,” the advocacy teams stated in an announcement.

“Syrian activists and victims of the atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Syria have been working tirelessly since 2011 to obtain accountability,” they stated, including that: “There are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress.”

The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Syria, because the nation is just not a signatory to the Rome Statute, leaving numerous victims of the battle with few choices to hunt accountability.

Russian vets seek to bring the Kremlin's mercenaries in from the coldRussian vets seek to bring the Kremlin's mercenaries in from the cold

In their pursuit of justice, Syrians are more and more turning to European courts — particularly these in Germany and France — beneath the idea of “universal jurisdiction.”

It offers a nationwide courtroom jurisdiction over grave crimes in opposition to worldwide regulation, even once they weren’t dedicated on the nation’s territory.

Earlier this yr, a German court convicted a former Syrian officer for crimes in opposition to humanity, within the first-ever trial of individuals linked to the regime in Damascus. Another stays on trial.

Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer at FIDH, stated they selected to file this case in Russia because of “the unique opportunity because of the strong legal basis to claim jurisdiction in Russia … this is the natural court for this case.”

“We are talking about Russian perpetrators, people who could potentially be arrested in Russia if there was a political and judicial willingness to push the case forward. Universal jurisdiction always has to be considered as a last resort,” Bectarte added.

So far there was no motion on the lawsuit filed by Abdullah in Moscow.

The same request in 2019 by Novaya Gazeta to Russia’s most important investigative physique — the Investigative Committee — to open a probe into its findings in Mohamad’s case was dismissed.

Abdullah has by no means heard of Wagner. He says he simply wants to see his brother’s executioners held accountable.

“If someone hadn’t given them the green light, they wouldn’t have done something like that,” he stated. “We will not be like them and demand [that] what happened to my brother [also] happen to them, [but] the least they deserve is jail.”

Abdullah says his brother’s dying has left him going through a sequence of challenges, from caring for Mohamad’s spouse and youngsters to coping with the trauma of the horrors he noticed in these movies.

It has additionally led him on a protracted and doubtlessly harmful quest for justice in opposition to a shadowy, faceless enemy. But he believes it’s well worth the threat.

“I am not worried about myself,” he stated. “I just want them to be held accountable, even if this costs me my life.”

NCS’s Eyad Kourdi contributed to this report.


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