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Two alleged Wagner Group fighters from Belarus have been accused of murdering civilians near Kyiv, making them the first international mercenaries to face war crimes charges in Ukraine.
Ukrainian prosecutors late on Tuesday released the names and photographs of eight men wanted for alleged war crimes – including murder and torture – in the village of Motyzhyn. Several are believed to have fought in Syria.
They say five are Russian soldiers, one is a Russian mercenary with the Wagner Group and the final two are Belarusian mercenaries.
The Guardian has previously reported on the alleged involvement of the soldiers named by prosecutors on Tuesday in the systematic torture and murder of civilians in Ukraine including the head of the village council and her husband and son.
There have been reports of Wagner fighters on the ground in Ukraine, but these are the first charges against allegedly serving mercenaries, and the first non-Russians charged.
Established in 2014 to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Wagner is allegedly funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman who is closely linked to Vladimir Putin and has faced western sanctions.
Russia has used paid fighters to bolster its forces since the start of the war. It was estimated to have deployed between 10,000 and 20,000 mercenaries from Syria, Libya and elsewhere, including Wagner Group fighters, in its offensive in Ukraine’s Donbas region, a European official said last month.
A survivor had previously described to the Guardian how Russian soldiers who were perpetrating a sadistic killing spree lasting days in the village had described Ukraine as a “fairytale” compared with Syria.
Prosecutors said Sergey Vladimirovich Sazanov 51, born in the town of Rechitsa in Belarus, was one of about 300 Wagner mercenaries who participated in a February 2018 offensive in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. They cited the open source research group InformNapalm.
Another man, Alexander Alexandrovich Stupnitsky, 32, a native of Orsha in Belarus, was identified as a liaison officer for the assault platoon of the Wagner Group’s 1st reconnaissance and assault company.
The third man identified as a Wagner member, Sergey Sergeevich Sazonov, 33, was born in Kaliningrad and is allegedly the driver of the Wagner Group command vehicle.
Denis Korotkov, an expert on the Wagner Group, confirmed that two of the suspects had previously worked for the mercenary company. “Sazonov and Stupnitsky are in my files,” Korotkov told the Guardian. He said it was unusual for Belarusian citizens to fight with the group, because they could face jail sentences for it.
“It is likely that Sazonov and Stupnitsky fought in Syria,” he added. “They don’t have a particular reputation, just regular Wagner soldiers.”
None of the accused men are in custody, and prosecutors believe they may since have been relocated to frontline positions in the Donbas, where Putin has positioned most of his armed forces following their retreat from the area around Kyiv.
“There is a possibility that these men are still fighting in Ukraine, or that they will be killed during the fighting,”said Oleh Tkalenko, a senior prosecutor in the Kyiv region. “We are still working on it and we will do everything possible to arrest them.”
Tkalenko said the investigation was based on photographic evidence, CCTV footage and reports of hundreds of survivors who confirmed the identities of their torturers.
Only three men survived the torture camp in Motyzhyn.
After killing the civilians, the soldiers buried them in mass graves around the camp. In one, investigators found the corpse of Olga Petrivna, the head of the village council of Motyzhyn, together with her husband and son. Petrivna had chosen to stay in the town and coordinate aid and territorial defence when the Russians arrived.
Tkalenko said that Ukrainian authorities had so far identified more than 5,000 Russian soldiers who were deployed north of Kyiv. “We are keeping records of all prisoners of war, and we know which ones committed war crimes.”
The list of alleged war criminals includes 15 other Russian soldiers charged with human rights abuses during the brutal month-long occupation of towns north of Kyiv.
Anna Neistat of the Clooney Foundation for Justice said Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office had signalled that it wanted to lead the overall effort while showing a willingness to accept help from the international community.
“They are very active. To date they’ve opened 11,000 cases,” said Neistat. “For the first time in decades, in a conflict situation, we have a national prosecutor who is able to lead these investigations and it’s absolutely right” that Ukraine has made seeking justice for atrocities committed by Russian troops a priority and national prosecutors are risking their lives to collect evidence of war crimes even in areas still threatened by enemy forces or laced with mines.
“Having said that, there is a danger of the prosecutors are getting overwhelmed because it’s huge number of cases,” said Neistat, who noted that instead of obstructing parallel investigations, the prosecutor’s office had been open to international support and was active in coordinating parallel investigations being launched elsewhere.
There has been unprecedented interest in building cases by foreign prosecutors and NGOs over the crimes committed in Ukraine. More than a dozen national prosecutors outside of Ukraine have opened cases into war crimes or crimes of aggression. The international criminal court opened its investigation just four days after the invasion. On Monday, a court in Kyiv sentenced a Russian soldier to life in prison for the killing of a Ukrainian civilian, in the first verdict in a trial related to war crimes carried out by the Russian army during its invasion of Ukraine.