In September, a video surfaced online apparently showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman and close associate of Vladimir Putin, speaking to a group of incarcerated men in the yard of a Russian prison. Prigozhin was encouraging them to join the Wagner Group, the infamous mercenary organization he founded, and fight in Ukraine as a way out of prison.
The video signaled Prigozhin’s first apparent confirmation that he does, in fact, control Wagner. While Prigozhin had been known for years for his connection to the group, he had until recently always denied that he controlled its fighters, who have deployed in support of Russian campaigns in half a dozen conflicts around the world, where many have been accused of human rights abuses that include torture, rape, and the mass killing of civilians. More videos confirming Prigozhin’s role at the helm of Wagner have since emerged, and for the first time he acknowledged founding the group in a statement issued last month through one of his companies.
Wagner got its start during the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and as evidence of its mercenaries’ abuses mounted, Prigozhin fiercely fought off reports of his links to them, often enlisting the help of attorneys to do so. Now, a cache of hacked emails and documents reviewed by The Intercept details for the first time the behind-the-scenes relationship between Prigozhin’s legal team in Russia and several British and U.S. law firms that worked on his behalf to contest sanctions; defend him against U.S. prosecution; discredit journalists investigating his shadowy businesses; and sue Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative website Bellingcat.
Earlier this year, Higgins’s attorneys took action against the British firm that sued him for defamation on behalf of Prigozhin. In a complaint to the U.K. Solicitors Regulation Authority, Higgins accused the firm, Discreet Law LLP, of filing a so-called SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation: litigation intended to intimidate or censor critics into silence by saddling them with the costs of defending themselves in court. Higgins told The Intercept that the hacked emails further reinforce his position. [Continue reading…]