A harrowing video has emerged that shows a man being tortured and them killed in the central Syrian desert by four men in military fatigues. As the man cries in pain they taunt him in Russian, eclipsing his agonized screams with laughter. The victim in the harrowing video is Mohamad, 31, a Syrian construction worker, who disappeared while he was working in neighboring Lebanon in March 2017.
The video, which has resurfaced now and has been reported by the CNN, claims that the men who killed Mohamad scrawled graffiti in Cyrillic on his lifeless chest that read "for VDV and reconnaissance," a reference to the Russian airborne forces. And one man in the video has been identified by independent investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as a mercenary from the shadowy Wagner group — a private military outfit that has links to the Kremlin and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
There have been several questions raised and the existence of Russian mercenary group Wagner has been debated time and again, with Russia claiming that nothing like that exists. Now Mohamad's brother Abdullah is seeking justice and three NGOs from Syria, France and Russia are supporting him have filed a landmark legal case against Wagner for the role it allegedly played in the atrocity, as well as the perpetration of possible war crimes by the men seen in the video.
What is the Wagner Group?
Over the past few years, it has time and again been reported from war zones and fragile countries across the world that shadowy groups of mercenaries operating under the rubric of the Russian private military contractor Wagner exists. Even a United Nations panel of experts last month accused Russian instructors to the Central African Republic armed forces of indiscriminate killings, war atrocities, looting, and enforced disappearances alongside the Central African military.
Although they didn't name any group or Wagner, news reports and U.N.'s working groups have been making such claims. There have been reports of presence of operatives form the Wagner group in Ukraine, where they fought alongside Russian and separatist forces, to Mozambique, where they were hired to fight insurgents. However, the group isn't like the conventional private military contractor.
Instead it is involved in mercenary activity and natural resource extraction while advancing the Kremlin's foreign-policy objectives. Although very much private, the group has close links with the Russian security apparatus, although the Russian government has denied the connection. In fact, the Kremlin insists that private military companies are illegal in Russia.
Does Wagner Really Exist?
This is the big question. According to Russia it doesn't and even if does Kremlin knows nothing about it. According to researchers, there is no single registered business called Wagner. Instead, the name is collectively used to describe a network of businesses and groups of mercenaries that have been linked by overlaps in ownership and logistics networks.
The Wagner Group first appeared in Ukraine in 2014, where it assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea. "Ukraine was basically the beginning, the departure point for the Wagner Group," said Sergey Sukhankin, a senior research fellow with the Jamestown Foundation, according to a Foreign Policy report.
Since then, the operatives have spiraled their way into paramilitaries and have branched out to Syria, where they have fought in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad while securing a foothold in the country's energy sector. Later they expanded to Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic.
While Wagner has become a helpful shorthand to describe this opaque and expansive network, experts caution that it may disrupt our ability to think about how they operate.
Wagner's Presence Established?
The recent video and the CNN report has now drawn a fine link between the presence of the Wagner group and its connections with the Kremlin. The independent investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has identified one of the men in the video to have links with to the Kremlin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" for his ties to the Russian President.
Mohamad was killed and his body was decapitated in 2017 while he was on his way home from a job in Lebanon. Four years down the line, his brother Abdullah is seeking justice.The lawsuit by the three NGOs supporting Mohamad's brother Abdullah further establishes the claim although Kremlin has time and again refused to talk about Wagner.
It is the first time anyone has tried to hold a member of Wagner accountable as rights groups continue to establish the growing atrocities committed by the mercenaries. Researchers believe that it's almost impossible that Wagner would exist without Putin's approval. In fact, its training camp in southern Russia is attached to a Russian special forces base.
Abdullah spoke to CNN but requested they protect his full identity and the location of the interview as his family might be in danger. "My brother is gone, he will never come back," Abdullah told CNN. "I want the world to hear about my brother's case, so these criminals are held accountable."
Mohamad, who made one of the last phone calls in April 2017, told Abdullah he had been detained by the regime as he had crossed over to Syria after working in Lebanon. He said he had been taken to Damascus and forced to join the military, but that he planned to desert.
Ten days later, Mohamad called to say he was being sent to Homs the next day and that he would escape at night.
It was his last call to his family. "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.
Mohamad then disappeared. And the video emerges showing the gory details of how he was killed.