‘Torture and executions’: EU slaps sanctions on Russia’s Wagner mercenary group

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin prior to a meeting with business leaders held by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (both not pictured) at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 04 July 2017. EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL

Brussels cites shadowy Wagner mercenary group’s ‘human rights abuses’ in Mozambique and elsewhere. The organisation is reputed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The European Union has imposed financial and travel sanctions on the Russian mercenary company Wagner for committing “serious human rights abuses” including torture and extrajudicial executions in Mozambique, Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

“The Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law,” the EU Council said as it announced the measures on Monday. 

The shadowy group is reputed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to conduct deniable foreign operations for the Russian government in Africa and elsewhere.

Wagner is believed to have entered Mozambique late in 2019 to help the Mozambican government fight an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in the country’s northernmost Cabo Delgado province. 

Wagner is reported to have withdrawn a few months later, after taking heavy casualties, though this has not been confirmed. There are rumours that it might still be in Mozambique.

The European Council announced on Monday that it was imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Wagner itself, plus eight individuals and three entities connected to it.  

The Wagner Group is a Russia-based unincorporated private military entity, which was established in 2014 as a successor organisation of the Slavonic Corps,” the EU said in a statement.

“It is led by Dimitriy Utkin and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Through the setting-up of local entities, and with the support of local governments, the Wagner Group finances and conducts its operations.

“The Wagner Group is responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mozambique, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.”

Among the eight individuals the EU sanctioned was Dimitriy Utkin, who the EU said was a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) officer and founder of the Wagner Group. It said he was “responsible for coordinating and planning operations for the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries across various countries.”

“In his commanding position within the Wagner Group, he is responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the group, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.

“This includes the torturing to death of a Syrian deserter by four members of the Wagner Group in June 2017 in the governorate of Homs, Syria. According to a former member of the Wagner Group, Dimitriy Utkin personally ordered the torturing to death of the deserter as well as the filming of the act.”

Another Wagner operative the EU sanctioned is Valery Zakharov, who it said was a former member of the Russian state security (FSB), and is now the security counsellor to the President of the Central African Republic (CAR). “He is a key figure in the Wagner Group’s command structure and keeps close links with the Russian authorities.

“Given his influential position in CAR and his leading role in the Wagner group, he is responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the Wagner Group in CAR, which include extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.

“This includes the murder of three Russian journalists in 2018, the security of whom was under the responsibility of Valery Zakharov.”

The three journalists were investigating Wagner’s activities in CAR when they were shot dead in a remote rural area.

Wagner is also reported to have played a key role in the Libyan civil war, fighting on the side of the military commander Khalifa Haftar who led an attack on the UN-recognised government in Tripoli in April 2019. Though all foreign troops including mercenaries were supposed to have left Libya under a peace deal signed last year, there are reports that Wagner is still in the country. 

Recently it emerged that the new military government in Mali was talking to Wagner about replacing the French troops that Paris has decided to withdraw. French troops saved Mali from being overrun by violent Islamist extremists and northern secessionists in 2013, but President Emmanuel Macron announced this year that France would begin withdrawing some of the troops, leaving it to Mali and to other European nations to make up the shortfall.

The EU statement noted that Wagner was “also spreading its malign influence elsewhere, notably in the Sahel region. For these reasons the group constitutes a threat for the people in the countries where they are present, the wider region and for the European Union.

“The aim of today’s decision is to curtail the subversive activities of the Wagner Group. It signals the EU’s strong determination to stand up for its interests and values in its neighbourhood and beyond, and to take tangible action against those threatening international peace and security, and breaching international law.”

“The listed individuals and entities will now be subject to an asset freeze in the EU. In addition, listed individuals will be subject to a travel ban to the EU. Moreover, persons and entities in the EU will be prohibited from making funds available, either directly or indirectly, to those listed.”

The Sentry, a US-based NGO which investigates dirty money connected to African war criminals and transnational war profiteers, welcomed the EU move.

It noted in a statement that it had been at the forefront of exposing the Wagner Group’s activities in the Central African Republic, which had included torture, rape, killings and abductions.

The Sentry’s senior adviser Oliver Windridge said: “Today’s EU sanctions on companies and individuals linked to the Wagner Group is a positive move against a shadowy entity that has consistently been at the heart of serious human rights abuses around the world.

“But today’s action must be part of ongoing efforts by the EU and its partners, including the UK and US, to combat the financial incentives and geopolitical gains that are the reason the Wagner Group exists. Only by making concerted long-term efforts can we ensure the victims of human rights abuses at the hands of Wagner Group see some level of accountability.”

Justyna Gudzowska, director of illicit finance policy at The Sentry, noted that the US had already imposed sanctions on Wagner, but the UK had not. She told Daily Maverick it would be impactful for the UK to sanction Wagner too as Russia had extensive financial interests in London.

She said that the EU, US and UK had already sanctioned Prigozhin, Wagner’s alleged financier, who is believed to be its link to Putin. DM


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