Two British men and a Moroccan who were captured while fighting for Ukraine have been sentenced to death, according to Russian media.
After a three-day trial, the supreme court of the Russian-backed and self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) found the three men — Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Saaudun Brahim — guilty of taking action towards a violent overthrow of power, an offence punishable by death in the unrecognised republic. They were also convicted of mercenary activities and terrorism.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the three will face a firing squad.
The three men said they will appeal against the decision, Tass reported.
“The evidence presented by the prosecution in this case allowed the court to pass a guilty verdict, not to mention the fact that all the defendants, without exception, pleaded guilty to all charges,” judge Alexander Nikulin told reporters at the court.
“When passing the verdict, the court was guided not only by the prescribed norms and rules, but also by the most important, unshakeable principle of justice. It was that which made it possible to take this complex and difficult decision to apply an exceptional measure of punishment in the form of the death penalty,” he added.
Downing Street said the UK Government was “deeply concerned” about the sentences. " Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity and they should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Aslin's MP, former Tory minister Robert Jenrick told Sky News: “This is an extremely concerning situation. This really has been a fraudulent sham trial. We shouldn’t give it any credibility whatsoever. There is no evidence to back up these charges and now we have two British citizens being subjected potentially to the death penalty.”
Mr Jenrick insisted that the two British citizens were not mercenaries but had rather chosen to fight alongside Ukrainian forces for “personal reasons”.
“Before [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, they were captured by Russian forces in Mariupol and they should be treated in accordance with international law and the Geneva Convention, which certainly precludes show trials, kangaroo courts of this kind and the death penalty.”
He demanded that Russian authorities protect the men and ensure they are either returned to Ukraine or the UK.
“I’ve known Aiden’s family for many years and I’ve known Aiden for almost as long as I’ve been a member of Parliament. They’re really good people and they’ve been through an appalling ordeal since Aiden has been in captivity with the Russians and now, of course, today is the worst possible news for them,” Mr Jenrick said.
“What we want to see now if the Ukrainian government do what it can to broker their release. I’ve asked the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to summon the Russian ambassador to meet with her or one of her ministers as soon as possible to seek assurances about Aiden and Shaun’s safety because it cannot be right that British citizens are treated in this manner irrespective of the circumstances.”
When asked if it would be difficult to deal with the separatists, Mr Jenrick replied: “Well, yes and no. If Vladimir Putin wanted to end this saga, he could do so tomorrow.
“These are his associates, his proteges he could step in and tackle this which is why I think we need to deliver a very clear message to the Russian ambassador that we expect Russia to support our British citizens and ensure they are treated in accordance with international law.”
The MP added that he has been in contact with both the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian ambassador in an attempt to connect with local officials in Donetsk to try to solve the situation.
“There are prisoner swaps happening between the Ukrainians and Russians, and Shaun and Aiden should be part of one of this as quickly as possible,” said Mr Jenrick, calling on the separatist regime to release the British citizens “as soon as possible”.
The three men fought alongside Ukrainian troops and surrendered to Russian forces weeks ago.
The two British citizens surrendered in April in Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine that was captured by Russian troops after a weeks-long siege.
Brahim surrendered in March in the eastern town of Volnovakha.
Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were seen in court on Wednesday, alongside Moroccan Saaudun Brahim.
A video shared by Russian state media suggested that they would face 20 years behind bars.
During the proceedings, the three men were held in a cage with black bars, guarded by soldiers with their faces covered and wearing armbands with the pro-war Z-logo, before being asked to stand while the verdict was read to them, a video from the courtroom published by the RIA Novosti news agency showed.
The hasty trial was held largely behind closed doors with information on proceedings handed to select state-owned Russian media agencies.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss condemned the death sentences.
“I utterly condemn the sentencing of Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner held by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine,” she said on Twitter. “They are prisoners of war. This is a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy”
His family also issued an emotional statement earlier this week calling for his release.
His relatives said: “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.
“We are currently working with the Ukrainian government and the Foreign Office to try to bring Aiden home. Aiden is a much-loved man and very much missed, and we hope that he will be released very soon.”
Meanwhile, Russian forces on Thursday pounded an eastern Ukrainian city and the two sides waged pitched street battles that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said could determine the fate of the critical Donbas region.
After a series of setbacks in the three-month war, Russia set its sights on the industrial Donbas region of coal mines and factories, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for years and where they already held territory before the invasion.
But, as elsewhere, the Russian advance has not been as quick as expected, and the plodding battle for control of Severodonetsk has evolved into street-to-street fighting that has been relatively rare in the conflict.
“Fierce battles continue in the city itself, street battles are taking place with varied success in city blocks,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press. “The army of Ukraine is fighting for every street and house.”
Severodonetsk, which became the administrative capital of the Luhansk region after the original was taken by separatists in 2014, is the last pocket of the region where Russia has not yet claimed control.
Mr Zelenskyy described the painstaking fight for Severodonetsk as the epicentre of the battle for the larger Donbas, which comprises Luhansk and Donetsk.
“In many ways, it is there that the fate of our Donbas is being decided,” Mr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday in his nightly video address, which was recorded in the street outside his office in Kyiv.