«It's Very Important to Get Ukrainians the Full Justice They Deserve»: Interview with British Lawyer Jason McCue about Lawfare Programme, Case Against «Wagner» and Fair Compensations

Jason McCue — the Senior Partner of McCue Jury & Partners LLP (the UK), who is fighting the Russian military machine in the courts.

Photo: Jason McCue Twitter

Jason McCue has impressive experience pursuing terrorists and rogue regimes through the civil and criminal courts. His team initiated cases against the IRA (Irish Republican Army), Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State and sought justice for terror victims andvictims of genocide.

The British lawyer and his team are currently ready to fight the «Wagner» group, its founder Yevhen Prygozhyn and, in general, the entire Russian military machine. McCue aims to prove that the «Wagner» mercenaries are terrorists hired by Putin to commit mass crimes and that Ukrainians affected by their actions should receive fair compensation. Read below about Ukraine’s Civil Society Lawfare Programme that he and international experts designed to enable Ukraine to open a lawfare front in the war. How it is possible to achieve such compensation, why it is about the «Wagner» group in particular, and how realistic it is to win such court cases.

On November 1, 2022, a legal campaign against Prygozhyn and the «Wagner» group was already launched in the courts of Great Britain, accompanied by McCue Jury & Partners company. Cases against Russians are ready to be launched in other countries of the world.

«It's very important to get ordinary Ukrainians the justice they deserve»

«Vchasno» news agency: Mister McCue, you have 30 years of experience in fighting terrorism around the world. So why is it important to you to help Ukrainians right now?

— Because what Russia has done unprovoked is the biggest abuse of human rights and justice I have seen in my lifetime. I’ve spent three decades working in this field, and if I do not use the few skills I have to try and help Ukrainians, then what’s the point of life? It was natural to want to help. And there’s a need.

I’ve worked all over the world dealing through my life, whether helping victims of terrorism, rogue regimes or military dictatorships. You learn to understand how to deal with these. And this area is not a state led area or inter-government agency led like by the United Nations. The officials who deal with these understandably don’t understand about this area of work — it’s sort of out there, they read about it, and they see justice being delivered through civil society/ private sector but they are naturally not experienced with it. But they’re not engaged in it in the same way; it’s very much a civil society thing. We call it «lawfare».

When this conflict was developing, and even back in 2014, with the original invasion, you could see issues arising. And indeed, we were asked by your government to give advice on the MH17 case at the time and how to get justice for that. But certainly, when this invasion happened, you realized this was very serious. Ukraine would have to focus everyone on frontline and humanitarian matters. A lot of people don’t realize — thankfully your Governmnet did — but law and justice are at the center at the start of every war, during every war, and after it, and people think of it as something which will be sorted out at the end. No, usually, a war has been commenced because of the legality. Normally there’s legality during it, and afterward, it must be sorted out to get peace. You could not have sustainable peace without justice. And justice, in this context of Ukraine, means not only accountability for the crimes committed by Russia but also reparations and compensation for ordinary Ukrainians. You can’t take the two apart; they’re the two sides of the same coin.

And I was struck by how the international community would approach this, «Okay, the Ukrainian government, let’s focus on the ICJ. Let’s focus on the ICC. Let’s focus on the international forums and courts.» Yes, you must do that; that’s so important to get all the definitions, but that doesn’t cover all, and neither can it deal with the accountability of the injustice and the damages done to each individual in Ukraine. And what we’ve noticed working in conflicts around the world, or conflicts like in Northern Ireland, where thousands and thousands were killed over time, is if individual victims do not get justice, there is never peace. There’s never a transition. It becomes a problem. And normalisation is mired. It’s very important to get ordinary people the full justice
they deserve.

Now there’s been a lot of talk from the international community about a reparations commission and a justice tribunal. Again, this is great. I’ve worked on a lot of them around the world and given advice, but I can see from my experience the issues. There are issues because reparations commissions have been successful when a party has surrendered, and it agreed as part of that to give over its assets to help the reparation. That isn’t going to happen here. Russia isn’t going to surrender, and you’re not going to march on Moscow, right? You just want what’s yours, right?

You’re not going to have, let’s say, when Germany surrendered in the great wars. That is not going to happen. So the international community starts talking, «Ah, what we’ll do is confiscate their sanctioned assets!» There are problems with that because international law says you can’t do that. It says you hold them and return them when the people who have caused the problem causing the sanctions have corrected themselves and have stopped doing the bad thing. So if you’re going to change that and take those assets, then that would mean we’re breaching international law, which although that doesn’t make us as bad as the Russians with their illegal invasion, it’s not a great idea to stoop to their level and turn world order on its head. Because world order has a lot of different states with assets overseas, and if a group of states can decide to take them, that doesn’t give any stability for investment or whatever. This invariably means this route to justice will be vulnerable to real politik. So there are real inherent problems in Ukrainians simply relying on a reparations commission to confiscate Russian assets for them. Yes, it may get money because there are clever ways — for instance, you might use certain sanctioned assets over a period to generate income, but the capital is protected — but there are inherent vulnerabilities with international politics and whatever the case, it’s clear there will be a shortfall in its recovery potential.

Lawfare can get the compensation which Ukraine deserves, and I’m for trying everything within the rule of law to get ordinary Ukrainians what they deserve. So all it needs is clever thoughts. It needs lawyers like myself, Ukrainian lawyers and your Government, and the international community to get together and start thinking about the problems and how lawfare can deliver some of the solutions. Because successful lawfare can get real value actual loss reparations.

Jason McCue in Ukraine / photo: Ukraine Media Center

«It's called „lawfare“ because, as well as doing something strategic for peace, it’s also irritating the enemy»

The other thing about reparations commissions, from experience, is if you look at Iraq and Iraq war, after that I’m pretty sure that somebody who lost a loved one has received under 5,000 U.S. dollars. $ 5,000 does not give you compensation for losing your dad or mom, who were the breadwinners in the family. $ 5,000 of compensation does not pay for the bakery, which was your pride and joy, which you’d spent all your life earning for, or your favorite car, whatever it is, never mind the hurt, pain, and damage. And it’s because the reparations commissions are focused on the important matters of state and civil society infrastructure reparations- to rebuild hospitals and schools — that’s their priority, not the individual.

So with all those things are in the mix, it seemed to me that it is very important to get a civil society lawfare cases going for ordinary Ukrainians right now, because these things can take the courts one, two or three years to deal with. Although this can be much quicker than justice through tribunals and commissions, it is nevertheless incumbent on us to get Ukrainians reparations as soon as possible.

But there are two wonderful things about lawfare cases that it is important to emphasise. Firstly, they target real, actual damages for each person in the case. So that is much more than the $ 5,000; this is the cost of your house or car. If you are a child, and you lose your mum and dad, you lose their to support for you to go to school, to go to university. These are the types of damages that can be attained through these kinds of actions.

Secondly, there is an international law precedent for lawfare cases to be set against sanctions, because a competent court has made a judicial decision and assessed the matter properly. There are many precedents for this in America and France. Europe has legislation to enable this. Look at the Lockerbie case, if you remember, against Gaddafi, and the Libyan Claim Settlement Act. These are all instances where lawfare cases have effectively given billions of dollars of sanction money to the victims, and has done so in a way which is in accordance with international law.

Lockerbie bombing — a terrorist act that occurred on December 21, 1988 over the Scottish city of Lockerbie, when a Boeing 747−121 of the PanAm airline was destroyed by a bomb that had been planted on board. 270 people died, including passengers, crew and city residents at the place of the plane crash. After a long investigation, charges of committing this crime were brought against the employees of the Libyan special services. In 2003, Libya acknowledged the responsibility of its officials for the plane explosion and paid $ 10 million to the families of each victim in exchange for the complete lifting of economic sanctions.

And it has another advantage, not just those of getting real reparations for the people but it also frustrates the Russian war machine. Because if we can get lawfare cases in Paris, London, New York, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, the Russian war machine has to fight those cases as they know we’re going to take their assets, which means they’ve got to put resources into it. And it’s frustrating them. It’s called «lawfare» because as well as doing something strategic for peace, it’s also irritating the enemy.

— Do the Ukrainian government or any Ukrainian companies support you in these?

— We designed the Civil Society Lawfare Programme for Ukraine. It took many months of going to Ukraine and talking to wonderful people in government and civil society who supported this. And we finally got it together. And there are very important pillars to this programme to make it successful. One is your government — they immediately understood and appreciated it. But this is a civil society project, and I said, «Government, we can’t take your money. Your money is for the frontline and humanitarian. This is a civil society. This is about private justice. But we do need your support. We need your support on facilitating the victims with access to justice through the programme. Because the victims have to know which case around the world to go into. Your Ministry and their digital capability are able to make the offer to Ukrainians and say, «If you want to come into this case, email this programme, and then it can onboard you into whichever lawfare action.»

The second thing was the help on evidence from the Office of your Prosecutor General and from your military so the programme has a process for lines of evidence into the programme to feed each individual case within it. You know, a case in Israel might be against an oligarch who supports the Russian war machine; we need evidence for that. We know he does, but your government has a lot of evidence. Your government realised the importance of collecting evidence from the start — It’s done amazing collate it all.

The case in London is against «Wagner». So we need relevant evidence against «Wagner». So it’s vital to get the process of claimants through the government and evidence. And I said, «But I also need your help on fundraising for this,» because not only does the programme need core funding — which at the moment my company has paid for — it’s been our pleasure, and it’s the least we could do to try and help. But once you start issuing cases, there’re many lawyers, investigators, PR companies, and client management. They can’t do it for free. These are thousands of people enabling billions of dollars claims for Ukrainians. This must be done professionally.

But there’s another important thing — I’ve taken on countries like Russia before, they throw lawyers against us, and we can’t fight with one arm behind our back. We’ve got to be weaponized with enough money to be able to meet their might and beat them on each battlefield in each court. Each case is a new law front battlefield. So kindly, your government has got to a position where they’ve said that they’re allowing the programme access to United 24 or another similar platform to crowdfund for it. So we’re now just at the stage of putting together that and trying to find celebrities, famous and intellectual people to go on that platform and say, «Support Ukrainian people, support this justice programme. Please give a dollar», you know. And I’m hoping that it will help to raise the funds the programme needs.

Jason McCue and Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine / photo: gur.gov.ua

«„Wagner“ should be designated as a foreign terrorist organization»

— So right now, as I understand, you focused on the case against «Wagner»? Why precisely against «Wagner»? And how do you collect information about the crimes? How can their guilt be proven?

— «Ukraine's civil society lawfare programme», or UCSLP, is the programme’s title. That’s been officially backed by your government.

Our job is to bring as many cases as possible for Ukrainian victims around the world and in as many courtrooms as possible with seeking what we’ve discussed. We felt that the Russian war machine has many aspects: sanction busters, banking facilitators, oligarchs funding the war machine, weapons, communications, and mercenaries. And we felt the 1st case in the programme needed to be poignant. And we felt it was essential to pick on a group, a defendant that was terrorizing Ukrainians and the country, and that had to be «Wagner». So we put a lot of effort into making the 1st case against «Wagner». And that was the reason but there are other cases ready to go. In America, we have a case against oligarchs and «Wagner» and Russian Federation ready to go. In Israel too, these cases are all ready to go — all they need is the government to help us get the victims into them and we need some funding. So there are a lot more cases with a whole lists of Russian defendents and many many more such cases the programme can do.

And, you know, if those cases I’ve mentioned will be successful and victorious, their recovery value is over $ 200 billion. That’s the size of those cases. That’s what the programme can target and bring to Ukrainians. And the more publicity we get, the more lawyers in Germany or South Africa may ring up and say, «I've got an idea for a case. What do you think? Can this come into the programme?» And then you’ve got another case. That’s how this will work. So on «Wagner», that was the reason for it. We wanted to do it.

But there was also another reason — my company acts for Bellingcat, an investigative group, and they had been sued by Prygozhyn, and we were their lawyers. So we’d been fighting Prygozhyn and «Wagner» for some time and were successful. I’m very pleased to say Bellingcat won.

So, there’s also another reason, I’ve spent three decades of my life in Africa. I love Africa. I love everything about the different cultures there and working on projects there. And what we have been witnessing in the last decade is groups, particularly «Wagner», what they have been doing to Africa, CAR, Libya, and Syria, all over Mali. And many of us have been looking at that and thinking how can we to stop them and disrupt them. The last reason why we chose «Wagner» was our strong belief that the group should be designated as a foreign terrorist organization. And what we know from experience, because we’ve done it before, is that when we bring a case proving that they’re a terrorist organization, that helps with the designation. We did it with the real IRA, which were not designated in America. We brought our case, we used our lobbying PR, and the legal action and the real IRA were designated. It was a success.

And that’s very important because then the justice and prosecution machines of those countries start working, not just on «Wagner», but anyone who materially supports them. We felt the case against «Wagner» being a terrorist could help your government with getting that designation by bringing the case early. And it’s working because our programme gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK government. And last week, two programme members, Jason Wright and Jason Blazakis, both professors, gave evidence to the American Senate for the designation of «Wagner» and we’re really confident from listening to both Houses we’re going to get a designation. And I think a small part is down to the work of the programme and the cases. So I’m very pleased.

As I mentioned, we have been following «Wagner» for quite a long time. «Wagner» didn’t become first apparent to us in Ukraine. We’ve been watching them for some time. So my own companies have amassed quite a lot of evidence, and we have quite a capacity through allied companies for investigations and intelligence work. But more importantly, when we started this programme, we created a network of lawyers, investigators, and journalists and said, «Look, this is what we’re going to do.» I mean, a lot of them sort of knew me from my work. And I said that we’re going to do this for Ukraine. I asked them, «Come on. Ukraine needs your investigation skills. We need this, and we need that. You’ve got to help for free until we get this programme up and going and funded. And then it’ll pay for the work it asked for, but for now we have no money.» So amazing people joined; Bellingcat has been providing us with a lot of evidence on «Wagner» and lots of other companies in a list that would be too long even to mention.

What has also been amazing is your government. It has been supplying us with a lot of evidence, which is super, so I am pretty confident in the programme’s evidence capabilities. And we’ve got no problem with the evidential in the case against «Wagner». I could win it if I was in court tomorrow.

PMC «Wagner» systematically commits crimes in Ukraine / photo from open sources

«It's Ukrainian victims helping Ukrainian victims»

— And what’s your forecast — will this case be successful? You say that you will win this case, right? Then what is the next stage after this trial and after the win, how get the funds paid, and how will they be distributed among the victims?

— So, on the 1st part, yes, I am confident. I am confident based on experience. And the evidence is good for this, and the legal theory is very good. If we can involve all the victims, potentially for this case, I can see the case recovering several billion pounds in compensation of damages for Ukrainians. It’s big. There’s a big question here — how long will that take? It could be much quicker than usual because will the Russians and Wagner fight us? If they don’t, we still have to go through the process and present the evidence to the judge, but they won’t be there, and it will be much quicker. Once we get our judgment and damages award, we use the British judgment to go at certain assets in the UK that are currently sanctioned, some assets that aren’t sanctioned, which we are confident we can connect to «Wagner». But more importantly, we know where «Wagner» assets are around the world. And the British judgment is such that you can take it to each of those jurisdictions. And we have law firms that are part of the programme network, which then take the judgment, seize the assets, and bring them back to the Ukrainian people.

So to bring a legal action, you’ve got to have what is called «locus standi» in Latin. It means standing for the case. Certain cases have certain groups of victims that can bring a case, but certain can’t for many legal reasons. For example, the English case is eligible for 180,000 Ukrainian evacuees who came to the United Kingdom and got a visa, not for any others. The American case is slightly different, and the Israelian case is too. Each case and country has different rules, and that’s why we bring lots of cases to do different groupings of victims.

But when a victim comes into the programme’s case, we say, «Yes, we want you to do it; you don’t have to pay any money. It’s free for you. You have no risk or liability to the other side. But for that, and because we’re doing this for the war, we ask you to agree to give a minimum of 20% of your damages claim to general reparations for Ukraine, which will provide for ordinary Ukrainians who don’t have the standing to benefit a case.» Some people may give more than that, but we decided that that was the right level. Some people may want to give all of their compensation to the general fund. And we want to start a programme with United 24, which we’ve designed already, so all these 20% come in from all the different cases, and we distribute that through a measured process to give people who can’t get into a claim damages reparations, which they deserve. And it’s Ukrainian victims helping Ukrainian victims, which I love the concept. That’s very Ukrainian, right?

«People deserve a court to say, „These Russians, these „Wagner“ people did this to me and my family“»

— Yes, you are right. Supporting each other in every situation. Mister McCue, in different articles, I read that in this English case against «Wagner», you want to prove that Putin hired them as terrorists to do all these atrocities, mass murders, and everything. So what is the essence of this case? I mean, proving that Putin hired them.

— So that was also why I wanted to bring the «Wagner» case because we knew that we could show and prove that one — «Wagner» is a terrorist organization, two — that Russian Federation paid, i.e., sponsored that terrorism. That’s very important because that means the Russian Federation should be designated for being a sponsor of state terrorism.

The 3rd point we will show in the case is that «Wagner» and Putin conspired to use «Wagner» to terrorize the Ukrainian public to make them evacuate or weaken resistance to their invasion. This was the reason for their terrorism, to clear the ground, to make the invasion simpler, to have less resistance, and to have more people out of the country. So there are three things that our case will prove, and I think they’re very important for Ukraine and every Ukrainian. That’s why I really like the UK «Wagner» case.

— You said that Russia might react to this case, but it might not. Will they fight in this case or not? What do you think?

— I hope so.

I hope they come to court and fight it because I’m confident and, you know, I prefer to win against an opposition. If they don’t turn up, then fine, we’ll still win in the just and fair court process. It’ll be quicker. So that’s good. But I am fine if the Russians turn up. They have a right to defend themselves, but I feel confident they will not win.

— If we talk about the victims, how many plaintiffs are in this UK case? Did you speak with these people? Which stories impressed you?

— — You remember the case can be for the 180,000 evacuees. I can’t bring them all in right now because can you imagine having to do a three-hour meeting with and contacting each of those? I’d have more grey hair than I have now. So we’re working out with your government how to do it digitally. So we started with a small number. And because we have a small number, I’m not giving any details out on them, but they’re Ukrainians who have a UK visa; I don’t want them to stand out as a target.

But we’ve spoken to many Ukrainians and understand their anger, frustrations, hurt, and pain. You know, there’s a lot of damage and loss there, and people deserve a court to say, «These Russians, these „Wagner“ people did this to me and my family. It is proved that they did it». So it’s set in history. It can’t be argued with, and no Russian government can go back and make revisionist history and rewrite it. But the Russians seem to be doing it about their state, you know, where they were from and their history. I think they forget Kyiv Rus and its origins. These cases are important because it encompasses in history the facts of what went on in this recent war. And it means in the future, history could not be twisted. It’s a primary source of evidence.

— And it will be historical because we do not have many familiar cases and processes right now. As you said, the international community is more focused on some theoretical things. And they stuck with some legal instruments. But what you do and your team and all your supporters is practical. And I think it’s the most important right now.

— It is practical. It involves rolling up your sleeves. Yes, it’s hard. We’re willing to do it. The Ukrainian victims are willing to do it. We just need good people out there to give us the seed capital that we need to be able to accomplish this. And it will deliver justice to those who deserve it.

And it’s great because there’s another reason. Let’s hope to God that this war stops as soon as possible. And with that, inevitably there’ll be some form of negotiation, for sure. When you have a negotiation, real politics comes in, right? Practicalities like, «You can’t be too harsh on your reparations». And the wonderful thing about lawfare, private civil society and litigation is that no negotiation can stop it. It’s private rights; it’s not vulnerable to the real politik. These cases can continue, and they’ll have to pay the victims whatever is ordered by fair courts of law. That’s important.

Author: Olha Kyrylova

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