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UN issues war crimes warning after death sentences given to soldiers

Three foreigners captured fighting for Ukraine were sentenced to death by pro-Russian rebels yesterday.

Ukrainian Marine Aiden Aslin, a native of Nottingham, England, who was convicted of taking action towards violent seizure of power at a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Ukrainian Marine Aiden Aslin, a native of Nottingham, England, who was convicted of taking action towards violent seizure of power at a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jun 10th 2022, 10:45 PM

THE UNITED NATIONS has said that unfair trials of prisoners of war amounted to war crimes, after three foreigners captured fighting for Ukraine were sentenced to death by pro-Russian rebels.

The UN Human Rights Office said it was concerned about the death sentences imposed yesterday by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine on two British citizens and one Moroccan man captured by Russian troops.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s office said the pro-Russian self-proclaimed republics had not been meeting essential fair trial guarantees and trials in such circumstances against prisoners of war amounted to war crimes.

“The UN Human Rights Office is concerned about the so-called Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sentencing three servicemen to death,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva.

Separatist authorities ordered the death penalty for Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Saadun Brahim, Russian media reported.

Western countries have reacted with outrage to the death sentences.

“These were citizens of foreign countries who were captured in Mariupol for being mercenaries. According to the chief command of Ukraine, all the men were part of the Ukrainian armed forces. If that is the case, they should not be considered as mercenaries,” said Shamdasani.

“Since 2015, we have observed that the so-called judiciary in these self-proclaimed republics has not complied with essential fair trial guarantees,” said Shamdasani.

She said these included public hearings, independence, impartiality of the courts and the right not to be compelled to testify.

“Such trials against prisoners of war amount to a war crime,” the spokeswoman said.

“In the case of the use of the death penalty, fair trial guarantees are all the more important.”

Britons Aslin and Pinner surrendered in April in Mariupol, the southern Ukrainian port city that was captured by Russian troops in May after a weeks-long siege.

They later appeared on Russian television calling on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to negotiate their release.

Brahim surrendered in March in the eastern Ukrainian town of Volnovakha.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the sentences “a sham judgement, with absolutely no legitimacy”, while a spokesman for Johnson said the sentence contravenes prisoner rights under the Geneva Conventions, which define the basic rights of wartime prisoners.

Boris Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to do “everything in their power” to secure the release of Aslin and Pinner.

Truss discussed efforts to secure their release with her Ukrainian counterpart on Friday, after the judgment by a Russian proxy court.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, suggested negotiations for a possible prisoner swap with Moscow were under way, as it emerged Defence Secretary Ben Wallace made a surprise visit to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

A relative of Aslin urged Britain and Ukraine to “do everything in their power to have them returned to us safely, and soon”.

They said Aslin and Pinner “are not, and never were, mercenaries” and should be treated as prisoners of war, as they were fighting as part of the Ukrainian army.

A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister was appalled at the sentencing of these men.

“He has been following the case closely and has asked ministers to do everything in their power to try and reunite them with their families as soon as we can.

We completely condemn the sham sentencing of these men to death. There’s no justification at all for this breach of the protection they’re entitled to.

Truss said she discussed “efforts to secure the release of prisoners of war held by Russian proxies” during her call with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs.

“The judgment against them is an egregious breach of the Geneva Convention,” she added.

Prystaiko believed the two Britons, who he said were targeted for the UK’s support of Kyiv’s resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, will be released in exchange for prisoners held by Ukrainian forces.

The ambassador told BBC News: “It will be a swap.

“The important question is what will be the price for this, because the Russians were talking about some Ukrainian MPs being swapped for them, especially for those who, I now understand, were working for them for all these years.”

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‘A different phase’

Wallace discussed how the UK can continue supporting Kyiv “as the conflict enters a different phase” with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov and Zelenskyy.

The Ministry of Defence would only say that the two-day visit took place “this week” and it was unclear whether they discussed the men who were sentenced on Thursday.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the convictions were “guided by the laws of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, the breakaway state controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.

“Because these crimes were committed on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, all the rest is speculation,” he told a press conference.

The Government was resisting calling in Russia’s ambassador to the UK to discuss the case as officials tread a diplomatic tightrope.

There were concerns that making their case an issue between the UK and Russia would assist Moscow in its narrative that the men are “mercenaries” and therefore not entitled to protection under international law.

Britain argues that Aslin, from Newark in Nottinghamshire, and Pinner, from Bedfordshire, are legitimate members of the Ukrainian army and should therefore be treated as prisoners of war.

In a statement to the Newark Advertiser, a member of Aslin’s family said: “We love Aiden with all our hearts. He and Shaun, as members of Ukrainian armed forces, should be treated with respect, just like any other prisoners of war.

They are not, and never were, mercenaries. We hope that this sentence will be overturned and beseech the governments of the UK and Ukraine to do everything in their power to have them returned to us safely, and soon. We can only imagine what they are going through right now.

“This is a very upsetting development and we ask that our privacy is respected at this time.”

Tory former minister Robert Jenrick, who represents the constituency where Aslin lived, called for the Russian ambassador to the UK to be summoned to the Foreign Office.

It comes after a friend of Aslin said the death sentences will “invigorate” those still resisting Russia’s advances.

© AFP 2022, with reporting from the Press Association

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