In a video of a brutal killing in Syria, journalists from Hromadske’s partner outlet Novaya Gazeta identified a Russian mercenary from the Kremlin-linked private military company the Wagner Group.
A shortened version of the video, in which a man is beheaded, dismembered and then doused with gasoline and burned, first appeared online on the evening of June 30, 2017. It then took two years for a full version to surface, which helped Novaya Gazeta identify at least one of the executioners.
The people who carried out the execution all had their faces covered, except for one man, who journalists identified as an intelligence operative for the Wagner Group – Stanislav D.
The disturbing story exposes Russia’s deepening and problematic involvement in the Syrian civil war. In addition to Russian private military groups operating in the country, the Russian government has had over 60,000 troops of the Russian Armed Forces on the ground there since September 2015. Russia has also been supporting the Assad government politically and with military aid since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011.
Human rights watchdogs accuse the Kremlin of aiding and committing numerous war crimes in Syria, a country torn apart by conflict, where fighting has killed approximately half a million people and displaced over 12 million more.
The Wagner Group is a private military contractor associated with billionaire businessman and Kremlin “fixer” Yevgeny Prigozhin; a former hot-dog salesman known for his links to the Russian president and often called “Putin’s chef” because of the chain of restaurants he owned in the Kremlin.
Prigozhin is leading Putin’s expansion in Africa and the Wagner Group is known to operate in a number of countries, ranging from Syria to the Central African Republic. Sources believe that Prigozhin’s people could be involved in attacks on activists, as well as the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Djemal, Kirill Radchenko and Aleksandr Rastorguev in the Central African Republic in July 2018.
Prigozhin is also under sanctions from the United States for his affiliation with the so-called Internet Research Agency, aka the St. Petersburg “troll factory” – a company engaged in disruptive commenting and influence campaigns on social networks.
The U.S. sanctions targeted Prigozhin’s assets, including three airplanes and a yacht, among other things. However, these sanctioned aircrafts have been taking flights to a number of destinations, says a recent investigation from Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – places that play a key role in Putin’s expanding economic and political presence in Africa, as well as the Kremlin’s quest to prop-up tyrants around the world.
Local media claimed to have identified not only the deceased but also the location where the execution took place.
The man executed was Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah – a deserter from Assad’s army, reported Arabic news outlet Jesr Press.
Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah, also known as Hammadi Taha Al-Buta. Photo: jesrpress.com
Al-Abdullah was born in 1986 in the city of Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria and was also known by the name Hammadi Taha Al-Buta.
Jesr Press identified the execution site as the Shair mine in the Syrian province of Homs – increasing the likelihood that the men in the video were, in fact, Wagner Group militants.
A division of the Wagner Group drove Islamic State militants out of the Shair mine in the spring of 2017. This information is confirmed by a protocol agreement signed between the Syrian General Petroleum Corporation and the Russian company Evro Polis Ltd., which the Syrian Cabinet of Ministers ratified on May 23, 2017.
In December 2016, Evro Polis Ltd. agreed to conduct military operations in Syria in support of Assad, in exchange for 25 percent of the oil and gas produced in the liberated fields. Like the Wagner Group, the owners of Evro Polis Ltd. are closely connected to entities belonging to Kremlin-linked businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
At the beginning of the video, all of the men involved have their faces covered. One young man in a green uniform has his head wrapped with a chequered black and white scarf (often referred to as a Plaestinian keffiyeh). He has a camera in his hands and is likely recording a video. At one point, he removes his scarf, revealing his face in full.
Screenshots of the mercenaries from the video. One man has his face uncovered.
Novaya Gazeta journalists uploaded a photo of the man with the camera to the Russian facial recognition site Findclone, which matches images of someone’s face with pictures on the Russian social network VKontakte.
The program immediately displayed images of the same man on the Vkontakte pages of several users.
Findclone search results
A simple analysis quickly revealed the alleged first name, last name and date of birth of the man in the photo, which was consistent with that of a man listed among the documented Wagner Group mercenaries known to Novaya Gazeta.
The man resembled Stanislav D. – a Wagner Group intelligence operative. Novaya Gazeta also obtained a copy of his passport, the application form he personally filled out to join the Wagner Group’s security service, a non-disclosure agreement and his autobiography.
Although the newspaper’s journalists know the man’s last name, Novaya Gazeta’s editors have chosen not to publish it to protect his family. Journalists attempted to reach out to potential relatives and acquaintances of Stanislav D., but were either told they were mistaken or received no response.
A copy of Stanislav D.'s passport, belonging to Novaya Gazeta
The other executioners have yet to be identified, but they referred to each other using the call signs “Pamir” and “Wolf.” According to the Wagner Group documents available to Novaya Gazeta, the private military contractor has two people operating under each of these call signs.
A group photo of the four mercenaries from the video posing with the body has since appeared online, in which their faces are uncovered. Novaya Gazeta is hoping to identify them on the basis of this photo, with the help of the newspaper’s readers.
The execution video shocked the country and provoked a widespread conversation – not only about the war crimes it exposed but also about the ethics of publishing extremely graphic footage.
Despite the controversy over Novaya Gazeta’s decision to publish the graphic footage of these war crimes, the investigative correspondent who authored the report, Denis Korotkov, is convinced the editors did the right thing.
In his words, videos like these “should be shown appropriately and professionally.” As such, Novaya Gazeta did not release the full frames from the video, “but a redacted and retouched version.”
“This is not [about] relishing scenes of violence, nor is it an appeal to low-lying human feelings – it’s the opposite,” Korotkov explains. “When we talk about crimes against humanity, it is necessary to remind and demonstrate that this is in fact happening here, now and with us.”
The Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov reacted to Novaya Gazeta’s report, calling the video footage “very shocking” and insisting that the Kremlin has “no information” and no connection to the people involved.
That being said, the fact that Peskov reacted at all came as a surprise, since the Kremlin almost never responds to journalistic investigations, Novaya Gazeta’s Korotkov says.
“I’m generally surprised that Peskov was able to express this kind of reaction,” Korotkov says. “The wording they chose in the Kremlin is rather unusual for such cases.”
While Peskov described the report as “very shocking information,” he emphasized that the incident has nothing to do with Russia’s military mission in Syria and was unable to answer the question of whether or not the president considers it necessary to investigate what happened. He said that this is the prerogative of the country’s Investigative Committee.
However, Korotkov doubts that there will be an official investigation into the Wagner Group’s role in these war crimes.
“I don’t think that serious procedural steps will follow and that there will be some kind of serious investigation, because any investigation into the activities of the Wagner Group and its leader could blow back on the Kremlin,” he says.
/Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart. Based on materials by Novaya Gazeta investigative correspondent Denis Korotkov. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange