https://www.bbc.com-Image source, Reuters
Aiden Aslin (left) and Shaun Pinner (centre) were sentenced alongside Moroccan national Brahim Saaudun
Two Britons and a Moroccan who were captured while fighting for Ukraine have been sentenced to death by a Russian proxy court in eastern Ukraine.
Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Brahim Saaudun are accused of being mercenaries, Russian state media says.
The court, which is not internationally recognised, is in the pro-Russian so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
The UK and Ukraine have condemned the sentences for violating international laws protecting prisoners of war.
The Britons’ families have insisted they are long-serving members of the Ukrainian military and not mercenaries.
The men’s lawyer said they all wished to appeal against the sentence, Russia’s Tass news agency reports.
All three men were charged with being mercenaries, the violent seizure of power and undergoing training to carry out terrorist activities, RIA Novosti said.
The UK government is “deeply concerned” over the death sentences given to Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner and was continuing to work with Ukraine to secure both men’s release, Downing Street has said.
A spokesman added that prisoners of war “shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes” and pointed to the laws of war laid out in the Geneva Conventions – which confers “combatant immunity” on prisoners of war.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss condemned the sentencing and described it as a “sham judgement with absolutely no legitimacy”.
“My thoughts are with the families. We continue to do everything we can to support them.”
Both the Foreign Office and Downing Street said they would do what they could to support the two Britons’ release.
Liz Truss is expected to discuss the situation with her Ukrainian counterpart on the telephone tomorrow.
But it is difficult to see what diplomatic pressure could meaningfully be brought to bear.
Some officials fear that if London were to escalate this into a bilateral dispute with Moscow – rather than leave it to Kyiv – that could fuel the false Russian claims that the two Britons were mercenaries.
It is possible the two men could be released as part of a prisoner swap.
But previous discussions about that did not make any progress.
BBC Ukraine correspondent Joe Inwood, who is monitoring events from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, said the men, all dressed in black, had stood in a cage in the separatist courtroom listening intently as their sentences were read out.
Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner had stood motionless with their heads bowed. In between them, Mr Brahim rocked nervously from side to side.
Chair of the panel of judges Alexander Nikulin is quoted by the Russian-state Interfax agency as saying: “In passing the verdict the court was guided by not only the prescribed norms and rules, but the main, inviolable principle of justice.”
Mr Aslin, 28, from Newark, in Nottinghamshire, and Mr Pinner, 48, from Bedfordshire, were captured by Russian forces in April. Their families say they were fighting in the Ukrainian military.
The younger man has a Ukrainian fiancee and both men are said to have lived in Ukraine since 2018.
‘Propaganda above law’
Mr Aslin’s MP, Robert Jenrick, called for the Russian Ambassador to the UK to be summoned to the Foreign Office to “account for this egregious breach” of international law.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry told the BBC that all foreign nationals fighting for Ukraine’s military who are captured have rights as prisoners of war under international humanitarian law, and Russia was “forbidden to abuse, intimidate them or behave inhumanely with them”.
A spokesman described the “so-called trial” of all three men as “miserable”, adding the government would “continue to make every effort to release all defenders of Ukraine”.
“Such public trails place the interests of propaganda above law and morality, and undermine the exchange mechanisms of war prisoners,” he said.
Chairman of the foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of carrying out “a form of hostage taking, a form of revenge”.
The Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “It’s not a state, it’s not a court and the judges are merely people dressing up and pretending.
“The reality is this is an absolutely brutal thing to do to three completely innocent people.”
The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, was set up by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.
It is not clear whether any executions have taken place in the breakaway republic – or if there will actually be any attempt to execute the men, the BBC’s international correspondent Orla Guerin said.
She explained there was little doubt DNR officials take their orders directly from Mr Putin and that the sentences appeared to be a tactic by the Kremlin to pressure and embarrass the British government over its military support for Ukraine.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Mr Putin announced that he was recognising the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, in a move condemned by Nato and Western countries.
A month into its invasion, Russia scaled back its ambitions to capture Kyiv, and instead moved its focus to Donbas.
In Severodonetsk, a focal point of the war in in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops are engaged in intense street fighting with Russia in the battle for control of the city.