In a first, landmark legal case three nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), based in France, Syria, and Russia, have announced a legal case in Moscow against Wagner, the Russian private military group. The case is over the torture and murder 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.

Wagner is, in essence, a proxy Russian military organization.

The case stems from a 2017 incident in the Homs Governorate when six Russian-speaking men dressed in desert camouflage, tortured, beat with a sledgehammer, murdered, and beheaded a man who was later identified as Hamadi Bouta. His body was then burned. The two-minute video, recording the incident, quickly went viral on social media.

Bouta had fled to Lebanon to find work and escape the civil war in Syria as ISIS took over large areas of the country. He later tried to return to Syria, but was detained at the border and sent to the al-Draij military base where Wagner contractors pressed him into a militia to guard oil and natural gas facilities. When he attempted to desert, he was caught and accused of being an ISIS insurgent.

In the video of the murder and beheading of Bouta, another severed head can be seen lying on the ground nearby. The video was uploaded to the private VKontakte site for members of Wagner only. 

At the time of the incident coming to light, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not watched the video but that it was not an issue for the Putin administration to look into, as the incident has nothing to do with the Russian Army’s operation in Syria.

The video was sent to  Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s prosecutorial organization, but no charges were ever filed, even though independent Russian journalists identified the Russian contractors involved in the incident. 

Wagner is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin also known as “Putin’s chef.”

This is the first attempt to bring to justice the shadowy, group that has carved an infamous reputation through deployments in Syria, Libya, about 20 countries in Africa, and Venezuela

Private military companies are illegal in Russia. Nevertheless, Wagner gives the Russian government plausible deniability while doing Putin’s dirty work around the world. Many military analysts believe Wagner is a GRU front company, whose contractors are trained at Russian military bases and transported to and from deployments via Russian military aircraft.

Wagner was created by Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin along with Prigozhin, who funded the unit. Utkin was a lieutenant colonel brigade commander of a Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) unit, the 2nd Independent Brigade of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Prigozhin was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury in December 2016 for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. However, he denied any connection with Wagner. Prigozhin was also sanctioned by the European Union and the United Kingdom in October 2020 for links to Wagner activities in Libya. In 2018, the U.S. filed criminal charges against Prigozhin for allegedly being the financial conduit to the internet troll farm accused of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Despite the charges brought against Wagner, there aren’t expected to be any convictions.

Nonetheless, Wagner, while “hiding in plain sight,” is being thrust into the spotlight, similar to Russia’s wars in Chechnya, where torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances were common charges against Russian troops.