The extremely graphic footage, said to have been filmed in Syria in 2017, documents the brutal torture and murder of an alleged Syrian deserter by Russian-speaking men dressed in tactical clothing. The man is accused of fighting for Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).
The video, which triggered the Novaya Gazeta (NG) investigation, had surfaced in the media before but its full version, showing what happened to the tortured man and revealing those filming the execution, appeared on social media only recently.
Identified by the paper as Abdullah al-Ismail, 32, the suspected army deserter is shown being pushed to the ground, repeatedly hit with a sledgehammer and beaten unconscious. The group then beheads him and cuts off his arms. Disturbingly, the new footage shows them posing with the mutilated, hung-upside-down corpse, and then proceeding to douse and burn it.
While the men in the clip do not identify themselves as part of any force, NG sought to find proof of media claims they belonged to the so-called Wagner Group of mercenaries.
NG used an online tool to compare an image of the only man with his face uncovered – the one filming the atrocity – to social media profiles, and said it came up with a perfect match to a certain Stanislav. The paper cited previously uncovered evidence of Stanislav fighting for Wagner, and published a scan of his passport with the surname censored.
The NG report then addressed the Russian authorities, suggesting an investigation into the people in the video should be opened. Failing that, they hope to uncover their identity with the help of friends and the internet.
When asked about the footage of the execution, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not watched it but that it was not an issue for the president’s administration to look into, as the incident has nothing to do with the Russian Army operation in Syria. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has any knowledge of the Wagner Group’s operations.
Very little is known about the private mercenary group and the information available is based on media reports, sources and rumors. The mercenaries, said to be made up of Russian army veterans, have been accused of participating in covert operations in Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic.
Further muddying the waters are over-hyped and sometimes dramatized Western media reports, as was the case with Sky News, who apparently used a Russian actor to pose as a mercenary fighter in a TV report. The actor later revealed details of Sky’s staged report to RT in 2016.