Wagner in Syria: Appeal to European Court of Human Rights after case dismissed in Russia

09/06/2022
Press release
ar en fr ru
Louai Beshara / AFP

Paris, 9 June 2022 — The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has failed to open a judicial investigation into the 2017 murder of a Syrian national by members of the private military company (PMC) Wagner ("Wagner group") in Syria. Lawyers from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Memorial Human Rights Center (HRC), and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

See the Q&A to learn more.

This complaint is the continuation of a long legal battleled in Russia by the victim’s brother, Abdullah Elismail, and the three organisations working on the case (FIDH, SCM, and Memorial HCR) – to shed light on the brutal killing of Mohammed Elismail.

“This case crystallises the urgent need to hold private military groups such as Wagner accountable for their actions and, more generally, to establish State responsibility in such cases," said Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of Memorial Human Rights Center. "It also sheds light on the behavior of Wagner personnel, who are never held responsible for the crimes they commit in Syria, Ukraine, Mali, Central African Republic, and Libya, among other countries."

“If the filing is declared admissible, the ECtHR will have to address a major and long-neglected issue regarding atrocities perpetrated by the Wagner Group: its link with the Russian State and the latter’s responsibility in the group’s atrocities.”

Clémence Bectarte, lawyer and coordinator of FIDH’s Litigation Action Group

The torture, murder, and subsequent mutilation of the victim’s body by several Russian-speaking men, were captured on video, and widely spread online. Several NGOs identified, to a fair degree of certainty, one of the men as being Stanislav Dychko, a known member of the Wagner group.

However, despite such damning evidence, and despite the involvement of at least one Russian citizen in the murder, the Basmanny Court in Moscow, and the Moscow City Court, found that the inaction of the Investigative Committee (IC) of the Russian Federation was lawful, stating that the reality of Mohammed’s death was not established, and the reliability of the video footage not confirmed.

“The continuous refusal of the Russian courts to investigate Mohammed’s torture and death constitutes a grave violation of individuals’ rights to life, to be free from torture and to an effective remedy protected respectively by articles 2, 3, and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Syrian victims and their relatives deserve to see these criminals held accountable.”

Mazen Darwish, director of SCM

While Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe on 16 March 2022, the country remains subject to the European Convention on Human Rights until 16 September 2022 and can therefore be sentenced for any violation that occurred before that date.

Timeline

- On 30 June 2017, a video depicting a murder appeared on YouTube. The video showed several Russian-speaking armed men dressed in what looks like military uniforms torturing and killing a man – all while laughing and joking.
- In November 2019, two additional videos of the same scene appeared on YouTube and Mohammed Elismail was identified as the victim.
- On 11 March 2021, Abdullah Elismail, Mohammed Elismail’s brother, filed a complaint with the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, with the direct assistance of SCM, demanding the opening of a criminal case of murder with particular cruelty against alleged perpetrators of his brother’s murder. He also asked the IC to verify whether there were any signs of other crimes, including war crimes, in their actions. 
- Since then, his lawyers twice — on 26 March and 13 October — asked the IC for information about the complaint’s registration, the progress and results of the preliminary investigation, as well as copies of procedural documents, to no avail. Three complaints were subsequently filed with the Basmanny Court: on 19 April, 4 May, and 19 July. Twice, they were returned on dubious technical grounds; the lawyers had to undertake significant efforts to get information about the fate of the complaints and the rulings justifying their return. 
- On 1 October 2021, lawyer Piotr Zaikin applied with the chairman of the Basmanny Court with a request to inform him in writing of the decision on the third complaint.
- On 18 January 2022, the Basmanny Court replied that there were no grounds for conducting a procedural investigation because the reality of Mohammed’s death was not established and the reliability of the video footage submitted had not been confirmed.
- On 28 January 2022, the applicant appealed this decision to the Moscow City Court.
- On 9 February 2022, the Moscow City Court dismissed the appeal on the same grounds as the Basmanny district court.
- On 12 March 2022, a cassation appeal was lodged.

Read more