Global network aims to sue Wagner as a ‘terrorist’ organization | War news of Russia and Ukraine

Last January, a fugitive mercenary for the private military company Wagner crossed into Norway by walking across the frozen river that marks the border with Russia, pursued by Russian police.

Andrei Medvedev told the human rights group that his life was in danger after a soldier under his command tried to flee the Ukrainian war, in which Wagner is playing a leading role, and was killed by a sledgehammer blow to the head.

Medvedev said this was standard practice for Wagner defectors, and he wanted to testify against Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, but he needed asylum in Norway.

He could now become a key witness in a series of civil lawsuits being prepared around the world against Wagner, with a leading class action now ready to go to court in the UK.

Visitors pose for a picture in front of the PMC Wagner Center, which is a project implemented by businessman and founder of the private military group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2022. REUTERS/ Igor Russak
Visitors pose for a picture in front of the PMC Wagner Center [File: Igor Russak/Reuters]

Last November, British law firm McCue Jury and Partners sent a pre-indictment letter to Prigogine and 32 defendants associated with the firm.

“We will prove that Wagner is a terrorist organization, that Wagner committed terrorist acts against not only specific individuals or buildings in Ukraine, but against the population as a whole, because Wagner is in an illegal conspiracy with the Russian Federation,” a senior partner told Al Jazeera company, Jason McCue.

“The Russian Federation used Wagner’s terrorism [against] the Ukrainian people to offer less resistance and evacuate the country to allow for an easier invasion. It was done on purpose – he said.

McCue has done it before.

He fought and won compensation for victims of the Irish Republican Army, after the British government agreed not to prosecute the group as part of the 1998 peace deal.

When Russian-controlled forces shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, killing all 298 people on board, the Ukrainian parliament asked McCue to file a lawsuit on behalf of the victims.

Now McCue has formed a global alliance of law firms backed by a massive evidence-gathering machine of investigative journalists and retired spies, aided by information from Ukrainian prosecutors and Ukrainian military intelligence, called the Ukrainian Alliance for Justice, to sue St. Private military company Wagner based in Petersburg.

It provides evidence to a wider forum called the Ukrainian Civil Society Program (UCSLP), which consists of law firms around the world.

The British case will seek to prove that Wagner operatives planted explosives near the nuclear facility.

“Our evidence is that regular Russian troops refused to plant these explosives, and Wagner did,” McCue said. He did not specify which object it was.

Last July, Ukraine’s nuclear energy body, Energatom, said Russia was using Ukrainian power plants as ammunition depots.

“The Russian military has dragged at least 14 units of heavy military equipment with ammunition, weapons and explosives into the engine room of unit 1 of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Energatom said.

Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhia military administration, said Russian forces are actively shelling civilian settlements on the opposite side of the Inhulets River reservoir from the Zaporizhzhia plant.

This prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to tell the UN General Assembly that Russia had taken “the concept of human shields to a completely different and horrific level”.

But Russia’s tactic may have been to fire back, generating anti-Ukrainian propaganda and potentially causing a nuclear disaster that could be blamed on Ukraine.

“We are ready to show how the Russian army protects itself [the plant] today, and how Ukraine, which receives weapons from the West, uses those weapons, including drones, to attack a nuclear power plant, acting like a monkey with a grenade,” said Evgenyi Balitskyi, head of the Russian occupation administration of Zaporozhye.

It’s not an easy task

Pavlos Eleftheriadis, professor of public law at Oxford University and visiting professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, said that violations of international law, such as invading another country, are easy to prove, while criminal cases are more difficult.

“The standard of proof is high. You need witnesses. You are asking the regular court to take a position on an event outside its jurisdiction. We should not underestimate that,” Eleftheriadis said.

“The rules of the civil and criminal courts are very strict. It doesn’t matter if Prigozhin is a very bad person. You have to prove the facts.”

“This is such a strong case,” McCue told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think I can lose.” He described his evidence to the House of Commons as “technically irrefutable”.

The volume of evidence, prosecutors and lawsuits also puts enormous financial pressure on law firms that receive no public money, only private donations. McCue said about $20 million has already been spent and UCLSP may need to raise funds to continue. But the payoff could also be huge, financial and moral.

Achieving geopolitical goals

McCue’s main case seeks five billion pounds ($6.1 billion) in damages for victims, but McCue said his plaintiffs potentially include all 180,000 Ukrainian expatriates living in the UK, so the value of the claim could rise.

But compensating the victims is not the only goal.

UCLSP is trying to fill the gap in accountability. This month, the International Criminal Court charged Russian President Vladimir Putin with illegally kidnapping Ukrainian children, making him a wanted man. But he still hasn’t established an international court to try Russia for the crime of aggression.

However, civil society lawsuits — what McCue called “the law” — can continue if individuals fund them.

“It is a strategic use of the law where international institutions or bodies or governments either fail to deliver justice or there is a gap in the system,” McCue said.

People visit the PMC Wagner Center, a project implemented by businessman and founder of the private military group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2022.
PMC Wagner Center is a project implemented by businessman and founder of the private military group Wagner Jevgenij Prigožin [File: Igor Russak/Reuters]

The strategic goal of convicting Wagner is to “frustrate and bind and wreak havoc on the Russian war machine,” McCue said.

“When I use the word Wagner, I’m also talking about companies and individuals and oligarchs, kleptocrats who are included under his umbrella to achieve Putin’s foreign policy goals, be they geopolitical or economic.”

Wagner has no known assets in the United Kingdom.

The strategy is to transfer the judgment of the British court where they lie, seizing bank accounts in Switzerland, mining operations in Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic or gold smuggling operations in Sudan – all suspected Wagner assets.

This should affect Putin’s ability to wage war.

“Putin deals with employment [Wagner] to carry out his foreign policy,” McCue said. “He uses them as proxies because they can commit crime, terrorism, to achieve his goals, and then he can stand aside and say that they are not part of the Russian army.”

Once Wagner was branded a terrorist organization, McCue hoped, it would also have trouble recruiting retired professional soldiers who “told their wives they were fighting terrorism.”

It helps that the European Parliament designated Wagner’s group a “terrorist organization” last November, and the US Treasury Department did so in January, making it easier to seize its assets. The European Commission and the US Congress are under pressure to follow suit.

“Now we have to find new complex answers to complex questions,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

“That’s why I support the idea of ​​recognizing Wagner’s group as a terrorist organization,” she told Al Jazeera.

The CCL is more focused on seeking an international court and assisting the Ukrainian public prosecutor and the Council of Europe in gathering evidence against Russia, including Wagner.

“The methods they use to achieve the political and economic goals of the Russian state in different countries are terrorist methods. We are documenting everything that the Russians have done in Ukraine, including members of the Wagner group, but the work we are doing is only a base for further investigations, so we are … happy to cooperate with any initiative that deliberately focuses on this issue,” said Matviichuk .

McCue said other cases are brewing in the US, Israel, the Czech Republic and France, as well as another case in the UK, leading to “potentially millions of victims and potentially hundreds of billions in damages”.

The UCSLP campaign could achieve a further strategic victory by increasing the damage.

Currently, about 300 billion dollars of Russian state assets are frozen within the European Union. Their confiscation is illegal under international law, but court rulings can bind them so that their earnings go to prosecutors.

Even if the European Union unfreezes these assets after the end of the war in Ukraine, they would remain bound by court rulings.

“We can easily estimate that we have $200 billion in potential claims in legal cases that have already come from our friends around the world,” McCue said. “If we get competent judgments, we can attach them to the sanctioned assets.”

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