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Libyan man, who says he was tortured, wants to hold Wagner group accountable

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Much of the focus on the Wagner paramilitary group has been on fighting for Russia in Ukraine, but it's also sent fighters to Syria and parts of Africa. Now a Libyan man is suing the group's leader in the U.S. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this. And we should warn, you will hear gunfire in her report.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: This was the moment that the Moscow-backed mercenaries tried to help take control of Libya's capital.

(SHOUTING)

SHERLOCK: The year was 2019. And Wagner contractors were acting on behalf of Libyan militiaman Khalifa Haftar in one of the most significant battles to date.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEAPONS FIRING)

SHERLOCK: Experts estimate there are hundreds of Wagner fighters in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMMED ANBEES: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: This is the story of one man, Mohammed Anbees, who claims he was tortured and his relatives executed by the mercenaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANBEES: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Anbees says he wants to hold these people to account. The Libyan American Alliance, an advocacy group who represents Anbees, shared his recorded statement with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANBEES: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: The civil suit, filed in Washington, D.C., names both Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army fighting force that controls much of eastern Libya. In September, 2019, Mohammed Anbees and his relatives escaped the war on Tripoli and fled to a family home in a rural village. Omar Tabuni of the Libyan American Alliance takes up the tale.

OMAR TABUNI: It started with the family just watching TV.

SHERLOCK: The remote control broke. Anbees decided to go to a nearby house to get another one. But on the road, he encountered militiamen, so he turned back.

TABUNI: Minutes later, they followed his vehicle. They entered his home. They pointed their weapons at his family members.

SHERLOCK: He and four relatives were bundled into a pickup truck and held overnight. The following day, they were driven back towards home. But then the car stopped. They were dragged out and made to kneel on the ground. It was at this point they heard the click of a gun loading. The men opened fire.

TABUNI: His father was executed. His brother-in-law was executed, and his brother was executed. His other brother survived. He had a gunshot in the leg. But Mohammed, he survived by playing dead in a pool of blood.

SHERLOCK: The court papers say the men who did this had blue eyes and appeared not to speak Arabic. It alleges they were from the Russian Wagner group. Before the lawsuit was even filed, Omar Tabuni says a United Nations-backed fact-finding mission also looked at the case. In a published report, it concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the actions of the Wagner mercenaries amounted to, quote, "the war crimes of murder, torture and cruel treatment." This is not the first time and not the first country where the group has been accused of war crimes. Kip Hale, who served as the investigation team leader of the U.N. fact-finding mission, said during the offensive on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Wagner forces also violated international law by mining civilian homes.

KIP HALE: There are many conflicts around the world where we see abject ruthlessness. But the takeaway with Wagner is that they are a modern fighting force that has all the capacity to know how to follow international law, yet they go the opposite direction and actively disregard it.

SHERLOCK: Neither Prigozhin nor Haftar responded to NPR's requests for comment. The court case in the U.S. is being brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows a foreign citizen to file a claim when they can't do so locally. Haftar is a dual U.S. citizen with property in Virginia, but it's not clear how the lawsuit could materially affect the Wagner group's leader, Prigozhin. Already on the FBI's most wanted list, he's unlikely to come to the United States and doesn't have known assets there. Tanya Munson (ph), an attorney representing Anbees, says this is really more about the principle.

TANYA MUNSON: We don't want warlords living in Virginia.

SHERLOCK: No one expects Prigozhin to have his day in court, but she hopes the case can draw attention to the wider activities of the Wagner paramilitaries not just in Libya.

MUNSON: It's important to kind of identify that this is a problem not just in Ukraine, but it's also a problem in other parts of the world that don't get as much attention.

SHERLOCK: Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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