The Russian Interfax news agency reported that a court in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine had sentenced to death two Britons and a Moroccan who fought in the Ukrainian armed forces after accusing them of mercenaries.
The death sentences were the latest ominous step in a trial that has alarmed human rights defenders and Western governments, raising questions about the protections afforded to the thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom have been captured on the battlefield.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wrote on Twitter that the court’s ruling was “a spurious verdict with absolutely no legitimacy”. A British Member of Parliament described the proceedings as a “Soviet-era show trial”.
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Prosecutors accused the three men – Aydin Aslin, 28, Sean Benner, 48, and Ibrahim Saadoun – of being mercenaries and terrorists seeking violence to overthrow the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. He confessed.
But the men’s defenders said the three immigrated to Ukraine and built their homes there and were fighting for their adopted country’s army before getting embroiled in what appears to be a pre-scheduled trial.
British fighters Aiden Aslin and Sean Benner sentenced to death by firing squad for fighting in Ukraine pic.twitter.com/bivVeSZsY6
– The Sun (TheSun) June 10, 2022
The harsh sentences received a swift and furious reprimand from the British government. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “prisoners of war should not be used for political purposes”, according to the BBC.
Legal experts said the trial appeared calculated to discourage foreign volunteers, including Americans, from joining the Ukrainian military by warning them that they could be denied the protections afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
But on Thursday, judicial officials in the Donetsk People’s Republic, where Russian-allied forces have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014, doubled down on their claim that the men were violent mercenaries deserving of execution.
Prosecutors alleged that the three men were guilty of “training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” and that they carried out their activities “for payment”.
Alexander Nikulin, chairman of the board of the appeals chamber of the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the men intended to overthrow the de facto government in the region, which is allied with Moscow and includes Ukraine, along with much of the rest of the countries. world, is not considered legitimate.
Nikulin said the court convicted the men and sentenced them to death after they pleaded guilty to mercenary charges.
According to Interfax, he told reporters: “When issuing the ruling, the court not only used written regulations and rules, but also used the fundamental and unshakable principle of justice.” Men have one month to appeal.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the three men stood in a glass cage in a courtroom in Donetsk, the region’s capital, according to a video released by the Russian government. All three were asked if they would plead guilty to the charges, and each said yes.
Interfax said Beiner and Aslin surrendered in the southern port city of Mariupol in April, while Saadoun in the eastern town of Volnovaka surrendered in March.
The British Prime Minister’s office stressed that under the Geneva Conventions, “prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity and should not be prosecuted for their participation in hostilities.”
Robert Jenrick, a Conservative Member of Parliament in Newark, Aslin’s hometown in central England, wrote on Twitter that Aslin was not a mercenary, but had lived in Ukraine and served in its armed forces prior to the Russian invasion. Jenrick said that Aslin deserves protection under the Geneva Conventions.
“This disgusting Soviet-style show trial is the latest reminder of the corruption of the Putin regime,” he wrote. “They cannot treat British citizens in this way with impunity.”
Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be treated humanely and protected from violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity, in addition to being housed and provided with food, clothing, and medical care.
Amnesty International’s Denis Krivoshev said the sentences constituted a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law”.
“The three were members of the Ukrainian regular forces, and under the Geneva Conventions, as prisoners of war, they are protected from prosecution for their participation in hostilities,” he said. The only exception, he said, is prosecutions for war crimes.
According to the BBC, Aslin moved to Ukraine in 2018 and joined its army. The radio said he is engaged to a Ukrainian woman. The BBC reported that Benner comes from Bedfordshire, has served in the British Army and married a Ukrainian woman.
His friend, Ilya Alzob, said that Saadoun arrived in Ukraine in 2019, learned Russian and joined the Ukrainian army a year ago.
“Ibrahim is not a mercenary,” Zab said, adding that he had known Saadoun for more than a year. “He came to Ukraine in 2019 and decided that he wanted to start a new life.”