His brother was tortured and killed by Russian mercenaries. Now this Syrian refugee needs justice


As he cries out for assist, they taunt him in Russian, drowning out his agonized screams with laughter. In the background of the video, which was uploaded on-line, a nationalist Russian army music, “I am Russian special forces,” performs.

The sufferer on this harrowing novice video is Mohamad, a 31-year-old Syrian development employee and father of 4 younger youngsters, who disappeared on his approach dwelling from a job in neighboring Lebanon in March 2017.

Mohamad’s ultimate phrases have been these of the Shahada, a declaration of his Muslim religion.

The males who killed and decapitated Mohamad scrawled graffiti in Cyrillic on his lifeless chest. It stated “for VDV and reconnaissance,” a reference to the Russian airborne forces.

At least one of many males within the video has been recognized by the impartial investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as a mercenary from the shadowy Wagner group — a personal army outfit that has hyperlinks to the Kremlin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, often known as “Putin’s chef” for his ties to the Russian President.

The Kremlin denies any connections to Wagner and insists that personal army firms are unlawful in Russia. Prigozhin has beforehand denied being linked to Wagner. Neither he nor anybody from his firms would discuss to CNN in recent times regardless of a number of makes an attempt searching for remark, together with for this report.

“These people risk their lives and by and large this is also a contribution in fighting terrorism … but this is not the Russian state, not the Russian army,” stated President Vladimir Putin in 2019.

Russian forces have been working in Syria since 2015, and there may be substantial proof to point out that Wagner’s presence within the nation is linked to the Russian army deployment.

Analysts say it is inconceivable that Wagner would exist with out Putin’s approval. Indeed, its coaching camp in southern Russia is hooked up to a Russian particular forces base.
Four years after Mohamad’s homicide, three NGOs from Syria, France and Russia filed a landmark authorized case in opposition to Wagner for the position it allegedly performed within the atrocity, in addition to the perpetration of doable conflict crimes by the boys seen within the video.
The lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Mohamad’s brother, Abdullah. It is the primary time anybody has tried to carry a member of Wagner accountable for what rights teams say is a rising checklist of atrocities dedicated by the mercenaries, whose increasing world footprint has allowed Moscow to advance an off-the-books international coverage in locations like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique
Abdullah spoke to CNN from an undisclosed location in order to keep his family, who still live in Syria, safe.

Abdullah, a refugee who fled Syria in 2017, has by no means spoken publicly about his brother’s killing earlier than. He broke his silence in an unique interview with CNN, he says, to attract worldwide consideration to the tragedy that devastated his household.

To shield members of the family nonetheless residing in regime-controlled areas of Syria, Abdullah requested that CNN conceal his full id and the placement of the interview.

“My brother is gone, he will never come back,” Abdullah stated. “I want the world to hear about my brother’s case, so these criminals are held accountable.”

Final telephone calls to household

In certainly one of Mohamad’s final telephone calls, in April 2017, he advised Abdullah he had been detained by the regime as he crossed again into Syria, after working in Lebanon for about eight months. He stated he had been taken to Damascus and compelled to affix the army, however that he deliberate to abandon.

Ten days later, Mohamad known as to say he was being despatched to Homs the following day and that he would escape at night time.

It was his final name to his household.

“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.

We tell Syria's human stories so that the 'victors' don't write its history

He stated his brother had requested him to “take care of my wife,” including: “I am entrusting you with my family.”

“It was that kind of talk, it was as if he knew something was going to happen to him,” Abdullah defined.

Mohamad by no means met his youngest daughter.

With the Syrian civil conflict raging, and poor web and telephone connections of their distant village, it was laborious for Mohamad’s household to seek out out what had occurred to him.

It wasn’t till a video displaying his torture emerged on-line months later that his family members found the true horror that had befallen him.

“One day a guy from our town sent me a video clip, he said: ‘Watch the video, it could be your brother.’ Of course, I recognized my brother — from his clothes, his voice, his appearance,” Abdullah stated, his voice pained. “He was being tortured by soldiers, they were not Syrian, we did not understand what they were saying.”

As Mohamad writhed in pain, his captors laughed as they tortured him.

Abdullah advised different members of the family about what he had seen within the video, however didn’t share it with them, fearing what it will do to their aged mother and father.

“When I saw that first video, I still had hope he was still alive,” he stated. “He was being tortured, but he was alive, he was moving. We were hoping he was still alive and in a hospital.”

Their father traveled to Damascus, trying to find his son at hospitals and jails within the Syrian capital.

“About two months later, the second video emerged, that is when we believed our brother died,” the softly spoken 27-year-old, now visibly distraught, advised CNN.

“When I watched the second video [which showed Mohamad being beheaded], I stayed in a room … I did not leave the room for three days. He was not only my older brother. He was my friend. We were always together,” Abdullah stated.

“My (other) brother developed kind of a psychological illness from the videos.”

Landmark authorized case

Wagner’s forces have been used because the tip of the spear in Syria, however their shadowy presence affords Moscow a level of deniability.

In February 2018, a US airstrike killed dozens and injured a whole bunch of Wagner fighters as they have been advancing in the direction of an oilfield outdoors the border city of Deir Ezzor.
Moscow did every part it may to distance itself from the incident, however when our bodies of Russian mercenaries began to return dwelling, it turned clear it was a Wagner operation.
The oil field carnage that Moscow doesn't want to talk about

CNN spoke to a supply linked to Wagner who had been to go to the injured fighters as they returned to Moscow. Moreover, within the days following the assault, one impartial Russian media outlet went to go to the mom of a fighter who died in Syria, she confirmed that her son was not a Russian common soldier.

Russia’s international ministry would solely say that these contractors have been working independently and went to Syria on their very own.

In Syria, the usage of mercenaries relies round an organization known as Evro Polis, which was sanctioned by the US Treasury for being linked to Prigozhin. In February 2018, CNN obtained a copy of a contract between Evro Polis and the Syrian authorities. The settlement said that Evro Polis will get to maintain 25% of the income from the oil fields if they’re recaptured from insurgent territory. In different phrases, Wagner does the combating, Evro Polis retains the spoils.

Since Wagner’s footprint has grown throughout the Middle East and Africa, a key launchpad has turn out to be the Russian army base at Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. CNN and different researchers have monitored the frequency of flights originating from Latakia to different theaters throughout the area. One doc obtained by CNN, particulars the settlement made between Yevgeny Prigozhin and a Russian airforce 223rd flight detachment to make use of their planes.

There is rising proof to recommend that Mohamad’s case could also be simply the tip of the iceberg.

'It was our children they killed'
A CNN investigation in June uncovered proof that Russian mercenaries have been committing conflict crimes and human rights abuses within the Central African Republic (CAR), in response to a number of witnesses and neighborhood leaders.

The Russian authorities denied the allegations and insisted the contractors in CAR are “unarmed and do not take part in hostilities.” The CAR authorities additionally denied the allegations however stated an inquiry would set up the info.

News of the authorized motion launched in March — by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human Rights Center in Russia — coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Syrian rebellion.

“The complaint … is an unprecedented attempt to fill the impunity gap and bring Russian suspects to account,” the advocacy teams stated in a press release.

“Syrian activists and victims of the atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Syria have been working tirelessly since 2011 to obtain accountability,” they stated, including that: “There are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress.”

The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Syria, for the reason that nation isn’t a signatory to the Rome Statute, leaving numerous victims of the battle with few choices to hunt accountability.

Russian vets seek to bring the Kremlin's mercenaries in from the cold

In their pursuit of justice, Syrians are more and more turning to European courts — particularly these in Germany and France — underneath the idea of “universal jurisdiction.”

It provides a nationwide court docket jurisdiction over grave crimes in opposition to worldwide legislation, even once they weren’t dedicated on the nation’s territory.

Earlier this 12 months, a German court docket convicted a former Syrian officer for crimes in opposition to humanity, within the first-ever trial of individuals linked to the regime in Damascus. Another stays on trial.

Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer at FIDH, stated they selected to file this case in Russia resulting from “the unique opportunity because of the strong legal basis to claim jurisdiction in Russia … this is the natural court for this case.”

“We are talking about Russian perpetrators, people who could potentially be arrested in Russia if there was a political and judicial willingness to push the case forward. Universal jurisdiction always has to be considered as a last resort,” Bectarte added.

So far there was no motion on the lawsuit filed by Abdullah in Moscow.

An analogous request in 2019 by Novaya Gazeta to Russia’s important investigative physique — the Investigative Committee — to open a probe into its findings in Mohamad’s case was dismissed.

Abdullah has by no means heard of Wagner. He says he simply needs to see his brother’s executioners held accountable.

“If someone hadn’t given them the green light, they wouldn’t have done something like that,” he stated. “We will not be like them and demand [that] what happened to my brother [also] happen to them, [but] the least they deserve is jail.”

Abdullah says his brother’s demise has left him going through a collection of challenges, from caring for Mohamad’s spouse and kids to coping with the trauma of the horrors he noticed in these movies.

It has additionally led him on a protracted and doubtlessly harmful quest for justice in opposition to a shadowy, faceless enemy. But he believes it’s definitely worth the threat.

“I am not worried about myself,” he stated. “I just want them to be held accountable, even if this costs me my life.”

CNN’s Eyad Kourdi contributed to this report.


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