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St. Petersburg court rejects defamation lawsuit against news outlet that linked Russian mercenary to gruesome execution in Syria


A court in St. Petersburg has rejected a defamation lawsuit by a man in Bryansk who accused the news outlet Fontanka of falsely identifying him as one of the Russian mercenaries who executed, dismembered, and burned a Syrian war deserter in 2017. The case appears to have been coordinated by the “Patriot” media group — a conglomerate of websites reportedly controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin, who also allegedly owns the “Wagner” private military company that supposedly employed the Russian combatants who tortured, killed, and mutilated Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah.

In November 2019, Novaya Gazeta reported on the beheading of a man in Syria, whose death was first revealed in a two-minute video circulated online in June 2017. According to Novaya Gazeta’s evidence, the men responsible for the gruesome execution were men from the “Wagner” PMC. Using Novaya Gazeta’s report and studying the killing’s footage, Fontanka soon claimed to have identified one of the mercenaries as a 39-year-old man named Ruslan from Bryansk. The website says it know the man’s surname but has withheld this information from the public. In an article published on November 22, 2019, Fontanka correspondent Alexander Erkmaov interviewed Ruslan, who denied any involvement in the execution of a Syrian man.

Roughly two weeks later, the Federal News Agency (FAN) — a media outlet that journalists have tied to Evgeny Prigozhin and his infamous “troll factory” in St. Petersburg — accused Fontanka of inventing its interview with Ruslan and concocting a “fake” investigative report about the “liquidation of an ISIS combatant [sic]” in Syria. FAN also ran its own interview with a man in Bryansk named Ruslan Nekhaev, who claims that the details published by Fontanka falsely incriminate him and amount to defamation. Nekhaev vowed a lawsuit and FAN said it had asked law enforcement to respond to “Fontanka’s fake news about the Wagner PMC.”

Almost a year later, on October 19, 2020, Kuibyshevsky District Court Judge Irina Vorobyova ruled that Nekhaev failed to demonstrate that Fontanka’s reporting identifies him in its story about the execution in Syria. The two Ruslans are of different ages, different heights, different builds, and one is a bachelor while the other is married with children. Judge Vorobyova also determined that prosecutors presented no evidence refuting Fontanka’s reporting, leaving no grounds for ordering the website to retract the story.

In addition to his reported holdings in catering, mercenary work, and media manipulation, Evgeny Prigozhin is notoriously litigious. He has tried to scrub the Internet of critical news coverage that mentions him and repeatedly sued anti-corruption activists for connecting him to illegal business practices inside Russia and illicit operations abroad.