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UK law firm launches legal action against Russia’s Wagner mercenaries over terrorism and war crimes in Ukraine

04.11.2022   
Halya Coynash

Yevgeny Prigozhin (standing) with Vladimir Putin Photo Misha Japaridze, AP

Yevgeny Prigozhin (standing) with Vladimir Putin Photo Misha Japaridze, AP

The UK-based law firm McCue Jury & Partners has served notice of legal action against Yevgeny Prigozhin and the notorious unit of Russian mercenaries, the ‘Wagner Group’] whom he controls and finances.  The firm explained that Ukrainian victims have launched proceedings before the British High Court against the Wagner Group, seeking both accountability and reparations.  

McCue Jury & Partners call this a landmark action, and it is certainly breaking new ground.  Even if it ultimately fails to hold Prigozhin and his paid terrorists to account, the move should help to highlight what the firm calls “an unlawful means conspiracy between Prigozhin, Wagner, and Putin’s war machine to terrorise the Ukrainian people. We believe this is the first time in history that a Private Military Company has been sued for its use of terrorism and for a conspiracy with a rogue paymaster state to commit an illegal war.”

Moscow has been using Wagner mercenaries in its aggression against Ukraine since 2014.  The mercenaries are believed to have taken part in Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea.  From there they moved to Donbas and played a major part in the fighting against the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the official line was always that any Russians discovered fighting against Ukraine, including in the Wagner Group, were ‘volunteers’ who were not killing for money and were not in any way linked with the state. There was a huge amount of evidence that this was a lie and, indeed, in December 2016, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was caught wining and dining the head of the Wagner Group, Dmitry Utkin at a Kremlin reception to mark ’Heroes of the Fatherland Day’​

At the end of 2018, some Wagner mercenaries actually decided that they’d had enough of being told they didn’t exist and decided to take Russia to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.  In their statement, they called themselves “veterans of the armed forces and military action’, and asked the ICC Prosecutor to “investigate crimes falling under the jurisdiction of the court”.  While “Russia’s Council of the Federation denies the existence of Russian private military and security companies,” they said, “we as direct participants in these formations are testimony to the contrary”. They added that “Russia’s interests in the world” are served by a whole range of such companies. Wagner mercenaries played a huge role in helping Russia prop up the regime in Syria, and in promoting the Kremlin’s (and Prigozhin’s) interests in Libya, the Central African Republic and other countries.

Prigozhin himself is a former criminal who served sentences for violent crimes.  He later became known as ‘Putin’s chef’ and is now a millionaire who is believed to be paying Putin back by funding the Wagner Group and the ‘troll factory’ in St. Petersburg.

That, at least, was the case until Russia’s full-scale invasion.  Since then Prigozhin has begun openly criticizing the Russian defence ministry and Russia’s military failures.  In September this year he admitted being behind the Wagner Group and analysts believe that he is actively seeking more power.

Whatever Prigozhin’s political aspirations, it has long been clear that his mercenaries are working for the Russian state.  Prigozhin could not have gone around Russian prison colonies recruiting convicted criminals to fight and kill Ukrainians without official approval from the Kremlin, and, in some cases state honours, officially awarded by Putin.

It was because of the role the Wagner Group plays in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that the UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee decided in March this year to launch an inquiry on ‘The Wagner Group and beyond: proxy Private Military Companies’.

During hearings on 1 November, the Committee was told by former Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky that the leaders of the Wagner Group now have as much political influence in the Kremlin as the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.  He asserted that Prigozhin had been behind the appointment of the notoriously ruthless General Sergei Surovkin to head Russia’s war against Ukraine, and that he works closely with him in Ukraine.

Khodorkovsky was hopefully not only in pointing out to the Committee that Putin is using the Wagner and other so-called ‘private military companies’ to do his dirty work, while enabling him to deny responsibility. He accused the UK and other countries of having been too slow to recognize that the Wagner Group are engaged in terrorism and killing despite their clearly terrorist activities in Africa.

McCue Jury & Partners also presented their submission to the Committee, using that opportunity to announce the beginning of their legal action.  In accordance with British practice, the law firm served a letter before action on Yevgeny Prigozhin and on the Wagner mercenaries.

The lawyers believe that their legal action “has the potential to change fundamentally the way the world addresses the proxy use of such organisations by regimes that seek to distance themselves and hide from their international crimes. Wagner’s use of terrorism to achieve Putin’s goals is borne out through their war crimes, including the use of torture, murder, and rape as weapons of war to terrorise civilian populations into submission.
Only a terrorist organisation such as Wagner would plant explosives around nuclear facilities
.”

“Not only is Putin’s war in Ukraine an inherently illegal one, but it is also illegal in the way it is being waged—purposely inflicting significant loss and damage on Ukrainian civilians. Wagner are infamous for their brutality and their ability to operate outside of the law, acting as a (as yet undesignated) terrorist organisation and playing an integral part in Putin’s criminal foreign policy. All of Wagner’s operations are shrouded in a deliberate veil of secrecy, which this High Court action will seek to expose.”

The case will initially involve only a small number of claimants and will be funded through crowdfunding.  Details of how to help can be found here.

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