”Wagnerians will have less time to kill Ukrainians.” British lawyer Jason McCue set out to prove that “Wagnerians” are terrorists, and to get billions in compensation for the injured Ukrainians. An interview

Oksana Kovalenko
Yuliana Skibitska, Kateryna Kobernyk
”Wagnerians will have less time to kill Ukrainians.” British lawyer Jason McCue set out to prove that “Wagnerians” are terrorists, and to get billions in compensation for the injured Ukrainians. An interview

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The Russian “Wagner” private military company, which is managed by businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is one of the vanguard units of the Russian army in the current war. This PMC was active in other military conflicts with the participation of Russia, for example in Syria. “Wagner” mercenaries also covered regular Russian troops during the battles for Luhansk airport in 2014 and for Debaltseve in 2015. Since February 24 of this year, “Wagnerovites” has been fighting on all areas of the front, in particular in the Donetsk region. And Prigozhin himself recruits prisoners to the PMC and promises amnesty for participation in hostilities. These mercenaries are suspected of numerous war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity. One of those trying to prove it is a British lawyer, a partner of the British company “McCue Jury & Partners”, Jason McCue, who has 30 years of legal experience. In Britain, he is known for his ability to seek compensation in courts for victims of terrorism. On November 1, 2022, at a meeting of the British Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, McCue announced that he would file a lawsuit against “Wagner” and personally against Yevgeniy Prigozhin. The main goal is to receive compensation for Ukrainians who suffered in the war. McCue has already faced Prigozhin when he defended “Bellingcat” investigators against his lawsuit this year. “Babel” correspondent Oksana Kovalenko spoke with McCue about how he will fight against a close associate of Vladimir Putin in court and what Ukrainians can expect if the case is won.

On November 1, you spoke at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament and announced your lawsuit against Yevgeny Prigozhin and PVC Wagner. What kind of meeting was it, and why were you invited there?

For thirty years, I have been engaged in activities that can be called legal warfare of civil society. Our target has always been terrorist groups, from the Irish Republican Army to ISIS, Al Qaeda and more. And this work has always been public. Great Britain was unable to convict Irish terrorists through the peace process. I then told the [British] government that I could file a civil lawsuit and get compensation for the actions of the terrorists. I knew we could win, and we did.

The Parliamentary Committee [of Great Britain] knew that our team was very interested in Wagner, monitored its activities and wanted to stop them. So when the committee began its own investigation, they invited me to testify.

When did you start working with Ukrainian affairs?

We have had many cases of terrorist attacks on airplanes. When MH17 was shot down, some of your lawmakers contacted us and asked how to file a lawsuit. When full-scale war broke out, many of my colleagues from around the world got together and decided that something had to be done. These are lawyers, investigators, and those engaged in strategic communications.

Judges (on the back) in a courtroom at the Schiphol court complex on November 17, 2022 in Badhuvedorp, the Netherlands.

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We quickly understood what we had to do. First, we know that court cases can force governments to impose sanctions on those involved. Wagner is a terrorist organization, it can be proven. This is Putinʼs tactic — to use “Wagnerians” to terrorize Ukrainians.

The second task is legal claims for reparations. We have a lot of experience, and we know for sure that there can be no peace without justice and reparations. We never rely on reparations commissions. They give money to restore infrastructure, build hospitals, and develop civil society, but itʼs not about ordinary people. They donʼt give money back to people who lost their shops, their cars. That is why we have been filing claims for reparations in advance for decades and do not wait for the end of the conflict. Such lawsuits can be settled at the expense of sanctioned money, so we offered this option to Ukrainian lawyers.

And finally, with our lawsuits, we distract terrorist groups from terrorism, because we take their time, threaten their fortunes and weaken them. That is, the “Wagnerians” will have less time to kill Ukrainians.

With whom do you cooperate in Ukraine? Do you have a team?

We work with many Ukrainian lawyers and law firms. We have a working group of judges from the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, we have worked with some government departments. They directed us, helped us to collect evidence.

We have had a team of international lawyers, investigators, intelligence officers, and communicators for 30 years. We are collecting evidence against the Russian military machine, which operates not only in Ukraine, but around the world. Letʼs imagine that we will receive a decision in the USA or in Great Britain. And letʼs say we know that [Wagner] has assets in Argentina — this is a fictional example because I donʼt want to give away real information — and we have lawyers in Argentina who can get those assets frozen or confiscated until we will receive a court decision. Therefore, itʼs very important that we have a large network around the world.

And how do you look for victims?

There are many Ukrainians in Britain now, for example, a Ukrainian family lives in the house with me. They talked a lot about what they experienced, just like other Ukrainians who are now in Great Britain. We use their testimonials anonymously, at least at this stage. But this case [Wagnerʼs] is potentially suitable for every Ukrainian who was forcibly evacuated to Britain. We are talking about 100-150 thousand people who can join the cause. My estimate is that there will be around 100,000 victims, and the total damages to be claimed in the lawsuit will be five billion GB pounds.

Ukrainians protest in front of Downing Street. October 1, London, Great Britain.

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But Iʼm a realist. A lawyer should work with each client, write letters, statements, check documents, etc. with him. I donʼt have such resources. Thatʼs why we have started fundraising and are asking you to give us the opportunity to lead this cause. The more money we collect, the more Ukrainians we will be able to attract and the more defendants we will bring. We took on Wagner and Prigozhin also because we know them from a previous case — we defended Bellingcat in London in the case against Prigozhin four months ago and won.

A lawsuit similar to the one we are filing [against the “Wagnerians”] in Great Britain is also being prepared in the United States. Our American colleagues say that everything will be ready by Christmas. We will file a lawsuit according to American rules. This way we will be able to cover the suspects all over the world.

Can you tell me what the procedure is for bringing such claims in the UK and what stage the case is at?

First, we have to write a letter where we state our position and our arguments. We wrote and sent Prigozhin and Wagner such a 15-page document. I wonʼt say how we delivered it, but we did. They then have three months to send us a response to each argument. Then everything depends on them. If they want to fight, they can come to court on our case and get lawyers. If they decide not to fight, we can file a lawsuit in court and ask it to make a decision. In this case, the claim can be considered within a year. If they defend themselves, the case may last 2-3 years. But we know that trials in the UK are much faster than any international tribunals. In any case, in the process we will freeze the fortunes [of the businessmen who finance Wagner], and not only in our country, but all over the world. And it will be painful for them.

Jason McCue

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Let me clarify, is this a criminal case or a civil process, and it wonʼt be about punishment for specific crimes?

This is a civil matter. But in any case, we must prove all the facts of the crimes, because otherwise we will not win. Then the judge has to assess the damages and make a decision. It can be referenced in any country.

You said that this is the first time that the victims have been held Wagner accountable. Can you explain why you talk about terrorism and what is the evidence?

We prove that the Wagner PMC group is a proxy, a private military campaign that Putin uses to do the dirty work in his international politics. For example, in Africa, “Wagnerians” support dictators and stage coups to gain control over uranium or gold mines.

In Ukraine, the “Wagnerians” are terrorists. This terrorism harms Ukrainian plaintiffs directly or indirectly. Directly — if they were injured by the explosions, they were tortured or shot at. Indirectly, this is intimidation by Wagners, which forced people to flee, in particular to London. This is what terrorism means. So people were harmed ― morally or physically ― they were injured, their property was damaged.

Who exactly do you want to sue, who will your lawsuit cover?

As long as I have limited resources, we are talking exclusively about Prigozhin, because he represents Wagner. As soon as there are more resources, we can talk about more people.

Eugeniy Prigozhin

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A few months ago, a video was released in the Russian social media channels where Prigozhin recruits Russian prisoners to his company right in prisons. Then these people were sent to fight in Ukraine. Did you attach this video to the case file and does it prove the connection of Wagner to the Russian authorities?

Of course, there is a connection. We will prove that the “Wagnerians” are directly connected with the state. I think we will be able to arrest 30-40 suspects — they are not necessarily officials, but among them there are oligarchs who finance Putinʼs war machine. We are not talking about Putin himself yet, because we will face the problem of the immunity of the president and the state. But if we have enough resources, we know how to bring him to justice.

What outcome do you expect in this case?

We will win! We have evidence of the terrorist activities of the Wagner mercenaries, we are confident in their credibility. We received them in different ways: from Ukrainians, from investigators, and scouts. We have a very strong position.

And how can you prove that Ukrainians were forced to flee Ukraine because of the “Wagnerians”?

I donʼt have to prove it, we donʼt have to attribute everything to them. The only thing I have to prove is that they are part of the conspiracy and were involved in terrorism and the invasion of Ukraine. This is the key to the case.

If you prove it was terrorism, what will it do?

That would mean I won and the victims would be compensated. And it will be more difficult for the governments of other countries, such as the USA, not to recognize the “Wagnerians” as terrorists.

How much can such a lawsuit cost?

It depends on how far we can expand the case. A small matter can cost 500 thousand pounds. If the number of victims increases, if Wagner fights back, if there are more suspects, the entire work can cost up to a million.

I heard that you cooperate with the Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Taruta. What is his role?

Serhiy, like others, helped me a lot during our trips to Ukraine. He introduced us to the right people and is now helping to raise funds.

Serhiy Taruta

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Babel contacted Serhiy Taruta. He said that Jason McCue approached him through mutual acquaintances with the British lawyers in May and offered to help. Taruta helped McCue meet with representatives of the Ukrainian authorities: Speaker of the Parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk, Minister of Justice Denys Malyuska, representatives of the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other law enforcement agencies, leading Ukrainian lawyers and Ukrainian judges from the Mriya battalion. According to Taruta, the Britonʼs initiative was supported by both officials in Ukraine and Great Britain.

Can you tell me how much money has already been raised for this cause?

So far, very little, but we just started the campaign and just started talking about it with the media. We hope that support will come later.

In 2011, you stated that you wanted to prosecute [Self-proclaimed President of Belarus Alexander] Lukashenko for torture and hostage-taking. Did you file a lawsuit then?

We cooperated with the political prisoners of Belarus and sought their release, developed a legal campaign for this. We called one aspect of this campaign No Safe Harbor. We have collected a package of materials for a criminal investigation. They are about political crimes committed by the authorities against political prisoners. We have made these documents available to lawyers around the world. This package was first used in France. Then the Minister of Defense of Belarus was going there for a conference, our lawyers found out about it and went to court. At the moment when they had already left the court, he ran away because he had been warned. But that way we didnʼt let him go to the conference, and then he never tried to travel again. And this was precisely a criminal prosecution, not a civil case. By the way, we can do the same with Wagner.

Visitors in military camouflage stand at the entrance to the PMC Wagner Center, associated with the founder of the private military company (PMC Wagner) Yevgeniy Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block on Peopleʼs Unity Day in St. Petersburg, November 4, 2022.

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And were there any actions on Lukashenko?

No, he did not leave the country.

In 2011, when you talked about Lukashenko, you said that you were preparing a lawsuit against him because he was the last dictator in Europe. Now there are two dictators in Europe — Lukashenko and Putin, are you preparing something for the latter?

If you are asking if I can file a civil suit against Putin for his involvement in terrorism and war crimes and illegal invasion, yes. But I canʼt do it without resources. Because in response, the Russians will hire hundreds of lawyers. But in general itʼs real, he made some mistakes. We have experience in such cases, we tried Muammar Gaddafi and won this case in America, and our American clients received tens of millions each. In case of death, relatives received compensation of up to 10 million dollars per person, 3-7 million for serious injuries.

You are probably aware of the idea of creating a special tribunal where Ukraine wants to bring Putin and other political and military leaders of Russia to justice. Are there prospects for such a tribunal, and what is the best way to create it?

Do I believe in such a tribunal? Absolutely. Should it have a hybrid nature, and should the question of reparations and compensations be considered there? Yes. But the problem is that this process will drag on for a long time. And the number of those who can be prosecuted isnʼt so large.

Well, the main thing is to use all the ways. Letʼs imagine that Putin will end up in a special tribunal. It will still not be easy. When Nuremberg Tribunal was held, Nazi Germany was defeated, it was completely crushed. This is not the scenario according to which the war between Russia and Ukraine is going on. When you finally win, Russia wonʼt be destroyed. Will it be willing to cooperate? Our idea of civil lawsuits does not contradict the special tribunal, but complements it.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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