The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Separatist court gives death sentences to Britons, Moroccan who fought for Ukraine

A still image, taken from footage of the Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, shows Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoune captured by Russian forces during a military conflict in Ukraine, in a courtroom cage in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Supreme Court of Donetsk People's Republic/Reuters)
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LONDON — The British government on Thursday said it was “deeply concerned” following Russian news reports that death sentences had been handed out to two British fighters and a Moroccan man — the first foreign fighters to be sentenced since the start of the Ukraine war.

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

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

The fighters have 30 days to appeal. If a pardon is granted, the death penalty can be commuted to life or 25 years in prison, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Executions in the DPR are carried out by firing squad.

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

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

The sentence could set a worrying precedent for other foreign fighters captured by pro-Russian troops. Moscow’s Defense Ministry has warned that they would not be treated as soldiers entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. At the start of the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky encouraged foreign volunteers to join his nation’s outgunned troops in fighting Russia.

The families of Aslin, 28, and Pinner, 48, insisted that they had lived in Ukraine for years and officially fought alongside the Ukrainian military, spending weeks defending the besieged city of Mariupol, a site of a major Russian advance. Saadoune reportedly came to Ukraine as a student.

Aslin’s family issued a statement through Britain’s Foreign Office on Tuesday expressing their hopes that he would soon be freed.

“This is a very sensitive and emotional time for our family, and we would like to say thank you to all that have supported us,” the family said in a statement. “We are currently working with the Ukrainian government and the Foreign Office to try and bring Aiden home. Aiden is a much-loved man and very much missed, and we hope that he will be released very soon.”

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

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “We are obviously deeply concerned by this. We have said continually that prisoners of war shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes. Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity, and they should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities.

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

Robert Jenrick, a Conservative lawmaker who represents the constituency where Aslin’s family lives, tweeted that “contrary to the Kremlin’s propaganda, Aiden Aslin is not a mercenary.” He called the conviction a “disgusting Soviet-era style show trial is the latest reminder of the depravity of Putin’s regime.

Aslin’s friend, Brennan Phillips, also decried his treatment, telling The Post in an emailed statement: “It has been clearly displayed for the world that both Aiden and Shaun have been abused and suffered undignified treatment even to the point of being paraded on Russian state media and social media to further their humiliation and degradation.”

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

“What I hope happens is that a prisoner exchange occurs in the near future. The Russian authorities have chosen to make an example out of these two British nationals, and it is, I think, completely shameful,” he said.

Ukraine and Russia have negotiated prisoner swaps before: In one of the largest to date, 86 prisoners from each side were released.

A close friend of Brahim Saadoune, the Moroccan fighter, said he is hoping that the DPR might negotiate a prisoner swap instead of executing him.

Muiz Avghonzoda told The Washington Post that Saadoune had moved to Ukraine in 2019 to study at the 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 high-ranking military officer in Morocco. His friend didn’t imagine he’d be fighting in a war so soon after joining, Avghonzoda said.

In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion, Saadoune’s division was posted in the Donetsk region. In February, they moved to the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, which saw some of the war’s fiercest battles before falling under Russian control.

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

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

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

Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.