Pacific islands’ concern over radioactive water. Saudi border guards accused of killing Ethiopian migrants. Ex-Thai PM returns from exile. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Anti-Putin mutiny leader ‘murdered’ in private jet crash

The site of a plane crash. Smoke rises from the ground as people stand around the debris with shovels.
A private plane crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino, in Moscow’s Tver region.
Credit: Russian Investigative Committee / AFP

Great power rivalry

Russia: Two months after his failed mutiny against the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, is presumed dead. The former close friend of Vladimir Putin was listed as travelling on a private plane that crashed on Wednesday, in what was believed to be an assassination ordered by the Russian president.

Russian authorities said Prigozhin was flying from Moscow to St Petersburg on an Embraer plane carrying seven passengers and three crew members – including Wagner’s chief commander, Dmitry Utkin – when the jet crashed near a village north-west of Moscow. All 10 on board were killed.

As aviation analysts suggested the plane may have been hit by a surface-to-air missile, Prigozhin joined a long and growing list of Putin’s opponents – including politicians and journalists – who have met untimely deaths.

United States President Joe Biden, like countless others, predicted Prigozhin would be killed, saying in July: “If I were he, I’d be careful what I ate.” After being told of the plane crash, he said he was “not surprised”.

Russia’s federal transport agency and a separate criminal authority that probes serious crimes opened investigations into the crash.

Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef”, ran restaurants and a catering business before becoming a warlord whose Wagner Group was often used to serve Putin’s interests, such as fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Wagner played an increasingly key role in the war in Ukraine as Russian forces struggled, which led to Prigozhin, aged 62, emerging from the shadows and becoming a fierce critic of Moscow’s handling of the conflict. He staged a mutiny amid fears Moscow would take control of his fighters but called it off and apparently agreed to go into exile.

The future of the Wagner group and its fighters – including its extensive operations in Africa – remains unclear.

After the crash, Roman Saponkov, a Russian military blogger believed to be close to the Wagner Group, said the “murder” would have catastrophic consequences.

“The people who gave the order don’t understand the mood in the army or the morale at all,” he wrote on the Telegram app.

The neighbourhood

Vanuatu: Japan’s move to start releasing 1.3 million metric tonnes of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean this week sparked concerns in island nations about the potential threat to the marine environment.

Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Matai Seremaiah, called on Japan to suspend its plan, saying there was not enough evidence about the impacts of releasing the water.

“[We are] urging polluters not to discharge the treated water in the Pacific Ocean until and unless the treated water is incontrovertibly proven to be safe to do so, and [to] seriously consider other options,” he told Radio New Zealand.

Dame Meg Taylor, former secretary-general to the Pacific Islands Forum, also criticised the release of the wastewater.

Fiji’s prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, said earlier this month he had read the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report approving Japan’s plan and was satisfied about the safety. “With Japanese friends and other partners including the IAEA, I will personally be ensuring the highest possible standards of safety and protection for our vast liquid continent,” he said.

Concerns about radioactive material remain strong in the Pacific, the site of nuclear testing for decades by the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

The wastewater from Fukushima was used to cool the reactors at the plant, which was ruined by a tsunami in 2011. It is due to be released over the next 30 years.

Democracy in retreat

Saudi Arabia: Border guards in Saudi Arabia have been accused of killing hundreds – and possibly thousands – of Ethiopian migrants who have tried to enter the country in the past year.

The guards used guns, rocket launchers and mortars to attack migrants and asylum seekers along the Saudi-Yemen border in what appeared to be part of an anti-migrant “policy”, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A 14-year-old migrant told HRW investigators: “We were fired on repeatedly ... I saw 30 killed people on the spot. I pushed myself under a rock and slept there … I realised what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies.”

HRW’s investigation, based on interviews with 38 migrants and analysis of 350 videos and photographs, follows similar allegations raised by the United Nations last October. The UN wrote to Saudi Arabia after it received allegations of Saudi forces killing up to 430 migrants over the four months to April 2022, saying captured migrants were “reportedly oftentimes subjected to torture by being lined up and shot through the side of the leg to see how far the bullet will go”.

Saudi Arabia denied the allegations. Ethiopia’s government this week said it would launch a joint investigation with Saudi authorities into the latest allegations. The US and the UN called for an official investigation.

Ethiopian migrants have been entering Saudi Arabia via Yemen for decades, sometimes fleeing for economic reasons or to escape war or persecution at home. About 750,000 Ethiopians live and work in Saudi Arabia.

HRW said Saudi Arabia should immediately revoke any policy targeting migrants and asylum seekers and prosecute any security personnel involved. It said concerned governments should also publicly call for Saudi Arabia to end any such policy. The killings, if found to be approved by the state, would constitute a crime against humanity.

Spotlight: Thaksin returns from exile

Thailand: In 2008, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire who became Thailand’s prime minister before being ousted in a coup, sent a handwritten note to the state broadcaster as he fled the country to avoid facing corruption charges.

“If I still have luck, I would come back to die on Thai soil like every other Thai person,” he wrote.

Since then, Thaksin has made at least 19 public declarations that he will come back, according to a tally by the Thai Enquirer. This week, he finally did.

On Tuesday morning, the 74-year-old flew from Singapore on a private jet and was greeted at the airport in Bangkok by his red-shirted supporters. Soon after, he was taken to jail to start serving his eight-year sentence.

Thaksin’s arrival came on the same day as his Pheu Thai party was set to return to office after a general election. He insisted the timing was coincidental – though his return was almost certainly part of a deal to ensure his release.

At the election in May, the military-royalist establishment – which has long opposed Thaksin – suffered a spectacular voter backlash.

The progressive Move Forward party, which had promised to reduce the influence of the military and to amend a controversial law that criminalises criticism of the royal family, won the most seats. But the party was eventually blocked from forming government by the military-appointed senate.

Instead, Pheu Thai – which proved to be more palatable to the establishment – formed a government in a coalition that excluded Move Forward but included pro-military parties.

On Tuesday, Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon, was elected prime minister, hours after Thaksin landed. Thaksin is believed to have received a promise of a royal pardon, which – as Sebastian Strangio observed in The Diplomat this week – is likely to be granted after “a face-saving period of incarceration in presumably relatively comfortable environs”. 

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Anti-Putin mutiny leader ‘murdered’ in private jet crash".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription