Ukrainian victims of Russia’s illegal war announced civil proceedings in the High Court in London against private army Wagner Group and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. We discussed of the war and the prospects of lawsuits against russia with Jack Beeston, associate of the McCue Jury & Partners LLP.
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— Jack, we welcome this first step towards justice. A hugely important, landmark case targeting Wagner Group and Putin's war machine directly. Jason McCue, senior partner at McCue Jury and Partners called it the «groundbreaking». He said: «This is the first time in the world that Wagner and their likes have been sued by its victims». For the first time, a legal action was filed against a private military company due to terrorism, political assassinations and ties to a state that finances terrorism. Will this set a precedent for similar litigation? What expectations?
— I think, yes, this is the first time that the victims of the Wagner group have taken direct legal action against them. The expectation is that if we are successful and obtain judgment in the UK, we will seek to enforce that judgment against named individuals, private individuals, who are parts of the Wagner group and who have assets which enforcement can be taken against. At the moment we have limited the case to just the small number of claimants, and the primary defendant who is Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin, both in a personal capacity and as head of Wagner Group. The intention - once additional funding is obtained - is to expand both the pol of claimants and the pool of defendants to target more individuals linked to the Wagner Group. This can hopefully then will form a model of how to deal with what we would describe as a terrorist organization in the future.
— We know that different strategies were considered. Please tell us more about the preparation for the trial. How long did it take?
— This case has been considered for and worked on for, the last 6 months. We came into a contact with Mr. Prigozhin directly last year when he sued another client of ours, Mr. Elliot Higgins who founded the investigative sites at Bellingcat. He sued Mr. Higgins in defamation in the UK courts for tweets that Mr. Higgins sent which accused Mr. Prigozhin of being a head of the Wagner group. That case was thrown out, and Mr. Prigozhin was defeated at the first hurdle and since then he has come out and publicly said that he is in fact the head of the Wagner group which proves that the litigation was just an attempt to stifle public debates and bankrupt a well-known journalist who has been a thorn in a side of Putin and those connected to him.
— Why did you decide to turn to private business and not to the state that started the war?
— Our view is that there is a distinction to be drawn between regular russians, good russians, and putin and his war machine. Wagner are very closely connected to putin himself and you know they can be described as putin’s private army, and the aim set was to attack putin and those connected to putin directly rather than taking action against the state of russia. Our view is that states should be dealt with by other states where possible and indeed legally. There are also reasons why it is preferable to target private individuals rather than states themselves.
— Which Ukrainian law firms help you?
— We have a wide network of contacts both in the United Kingdom and abroad. These include many individuals within the state of Ukraine who have supported this claim. And on the Ukrainian side Sergii Shkliar of Arzinger is assisting as legal co-counsel. And you would have seen from our press release that we have had quotes supporting us from Ruslan Stefanchuk, Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, as well as Yurii Chumak, who is a Ukrainian Supreme Court Judge. We've also had a message of support from major general Kyrylo Budanov, who is the Head of Defense Intelligence Service of Ukraine, and Sergii Taruta, who is the People Deputy of Ukraine. So we have formal legal assistance from Arzinger, as well as support from the Ukrainian government for our actions at the very high level and for which we are very appreciative, and we want to assist them in any way that we can.
— How did communication go with the Ukrainian clients? What are your clients worries and expectations?
— We are doing everything we can and will always do everything we can to protect the anonymity of our clients. We do not intend for their names to ever become public, they are Ukrainian citizens currently residing in the United Kingdom as evacuees from the Ukraine. They in all cases still have families left in Ukraine, we do not intend to do anything that would jeopardize the safety of their families and so we will protect their identities completely during this action and following established precedents in the courts of the United Kingdom to do so.
— How is the team work organized from the inside? How many team members are involved?
— We are a small firm working with the small team, but have links to other firms within the Ukraine Justice Alliance network and will continue to try and build this case as widely and as largely as possible and when necessary will take additional support.
— The community through crowdfunding funds this lawsuit. Is there a fixed amount that needs to be collected? What is the amount already?
— No, we've set an initial target of 1 mln pounds for the crowdfunding, and this would cover UK based actions and allow us to expand the scope of the claim to include as many members of putin’s war machine as can be identified and attacked and will also allow us to take on as many Ukrainian victims as we possibly can and bring them into the claim. So, our view is that this case will be the first step in a series of cases, so we need to raise as much money as we possibly can to fund those cases. And we are doing so via crowdfunding and expect the amounts collected in donations increase significantly in the coming days, weeks, and months.
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— Jack, have you ever been to Kyiv? What impressed you the most?
— I have been to Kyiv once before, as a child. My father was a foreign journalist and covered Russia, the Yeltsin regime and the First Chechen War as well as the former Soviet Union countries too. So I have been to Kyiv but I think I was 2 or 3 years old and unfortunately I don't remember it. I would love to go back, hopefully, once a peaceful resolution to the conflict has been found if not before.