Russian-backed separatist court issues death sentences to two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for Ukraine

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LONDON – The British government said on Thursday it was “deeply concerned” over Russian news reports that death sentences had been handed down against two British fighters and a Moroccan man – the first foreign fighters sentenced since the war in Ukraine began.

Britain’s Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Morocco’s Brahim Saadoune were accused of working as foreign mercenaries in the self-proclaimed breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), which Moscow recognized as independent in late February on the eve of the invasion.

A Russian-backed tribunal in the separatist region of Donetsk has sentenced the three men to death, Russian state media reported Thursday. The court where they were tried is not internationally recognized.

The three fighters have 30 days to appeal. If pardoned, the death penalty could be commuted to life or 25 years in prison, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti said. Executions in the DPR are carried out by firing squad.

Two Britons and a Moroccan, captured while fighting for Ukraine, were sentenced to death on June 9 by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (Video: Reuters)

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the conviction a “sham sentence” that had “no legitimacy”.

The verdict could set a worrying precedent for other foreign fighters captured by pro-Russian forces. The Moscow Ministry of Defense has warned that they would not be treated as soldiers entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions. At the outset of the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky encouraged foreign volunteers to join his country’s underprivileged forces in the fight against Russia.

The families of Aslin, 28, and Pinner, 48, claimed they had lived in Ukraine for years and had officially fought alongside the Ukrainian military while defending the besieged city of Mariupol, a site of a major Russian advance, for weeks. Saadoune is said to have come to Ukraine as a student.

Aslin’s family issued a statement through the British Foreign Office on Tuesday expressing the hope that he will be released soon.

“This is a very sensitive and emotional time for our family, and we want to thank everyone who has supported us,” the family said in a statement. “We are currently working with the Ukrainian government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring Aiden home. Aiden is a much loved man and is sorely missed, and we hope he will be released very soon.”

The three fighters were captured in April. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the fighters plan to appeal the court’s ruling.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “We are of course deeply concerned about this. We have consistently said that prisoners of war should not be exploited for political ends. According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war have the right to immunity from combatants and should not be prosecuted for participating in hostilities.

“So we will continue to work with the Ukrainian authorities to try to secure the release of all British nationals who served in the Ukrainian armed forces and who are being held as prisoners of war.”

Robert Jenrick, a conservative lawmaker representing the constituency where Aslin’s family lives, tweeted that “contrary to Kremlin propaganda, Aiden Aslin is not a mercenary.” He called the sentencing a “disgusting Soviet-era show trial, the last reminder of the depravity of Putin’s regime.”

Earlier this week, Jenrick told the BBC that Aslin was a British-Ukrainian citizen who “joined and served in the armed forces in the normal way before Putin’s illegal invasion.” He said the men were on trial for “trumped-up charges” and suggested they return to Ukraine as soon as possible, possibly through a prisoner exchange.

“What I hope will happen is that there will be a prisoner exchange in the near future. The Russian authorities have chosen to set an example to these two British citizens, and I find that utterly shameful,” he said.

Ukraine and Russia have previously negotiated the prisoner swap: in one of the largest to date, 86 prisoners from each side were released.

A close friend of Moroccan fighter Brahim Saadoune said he hopes the DPR would negotiate a prisoner swap instead of executing his friend.

Muiz Avghonzoda told The Washington Post that Saadoune had moved to Ukraine in 2019 to study at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. He was looking for a job in November when he decided to join the military, his friend said. Saadoune’s father had served as a senior military officer in Morocco. His friend did not think he would be fighting in a war so soon after joining, Avghonzoda said.

In the months leading up to the Russian invasion, Saadoune’s division was stationed in the Donetsk region. In February, they moved to the Azovstal steel mill in the port city of Mariupol, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place before coming under Russian control.

Avghonzoda learned that his friend was imprisoned on April 7. He launched a “Red Brahim” campaign on social media to pressure authorities to release him.

Avghonzoda said he has been in touch with Saadoune’s sister and she believes that the Russian-backed authorities in the DPR will eventually use the foreigners to try and negotiate a high-profile prisoner swap, possibly for pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. , who was captured by Ukrainian authorities in February.

“We have a month to get them out of there,” Avghonzoda said.

Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.