A friend of a British fighter who was captured by Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine says his death sentence could backfire on Vladimir Putin.
Aiden Aslin, 28, was convicted by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic of working towards a violent seizure of power.
Another Briton, 48-year-old Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim were also convicted after the three were accused of being “mercenaries”.
This comes despite Mr Aslin having both British and Ukrainian citizenship, having moved to Ukraine in 2017 and lawfully joining the country’s Marines.
The Russian state media company RIA Novosti reported that the three are threatened with a firing squad.
Brennan Phillips, an American former soldier who met Mr Aslin in Syria and worked with him in Ukraine, said the verdict was a “provocation”.
Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Mr Phillips said: “I think it will energize people more than anything.
“Whatever effect you expected from this provocation, I don’t think it will be well received. And they did it as a provocation.”
Mr. Phillips from Tennessee added that “many people expected” that Russia would “choose the most provocative stance they could take” – namely the death sentence.
“I don’t think Sean or Aiden will be sentenced to death or anything,” he said.
“I believe that their captivity among the Russians will be extended a little longer, but I believe with all my heart and am very confident that they will be safely returned to their families.”
The British government has insisted the sentences have no legitimacy and the couple should be treated as prisoners of war.
Tory MP Bob Seely, who sits on the Special Committee on Foreign Affairs, accused Russia of breaking international law.
“I very much hope they are not killed quickly – they could be killed quickly as a shock value,” said the Isle of Wight MP.
“But if they’re not, as everyone expects, then they’re being held up as a diplomatic tool, and I think the bigger picture here – what’s happening – is that the Russians, as part of the indirect conflict against the increasingly aggressive Baltic republics, against the Poles, against Britain and others close to the Ukrainian government and supporting Ukrainians in the conflict.”
Russia’s Interfax news agency claimed the men could appeal their convictions.
Howard Morrison QC, the UK’s independent adviser on war crimes in Ukraine, said the verdict was likely to have been used for “trial purposes”. He added, “I would hesitate to call it a trial, to be honest.”
“But when it comes to negotiations, it’s difficult to see exactly what the subtext is,” he added.
“Because the British government doesn’t hold prisoners, it’s the Ukrainians who hold the prisoners.”
Mr Morrison said the government’s complaint that the men were prisoners of war who should be treated under the Geneva Conventions was “spot on”.
“There shouldn’t have been a show trial and certainly not the death penalty,” he said.
Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to do “everything in their power” to secure the release of two Britons sentenced to death in a “sham” sentence for fighting Russian forces.
Secretary of State Liz Truss today discussed efforts to free Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner with her Ukrainian counterpart.
Ambassador of Ukraine to Britain Vadym Prystaiko indicated that negotiations for a possible prisoner swap with Moscow were underway as it emerged that Defense Minister Ben Wallace had left for a surprise visit to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
A relative of Mr Aslin urged Britain and Ukraine to “do everything in their power to ensure they return to us safely and soon”.
They said Mr Aslin, 28, and Mr Pinner, 48, “are not and never were mercenaries” and should be treated as prisoners of war as they fought as part of the Ukrainian army.
Mr Aslin, originally from Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, and Mr Pinner were both members of regular Ukrainian military units who fought in Mariupol.
The southern port city that has been the scene of some of the worst conflicts since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Phillips said Mr Aslin had lived a well-established life in Ukraine after arriving in 2017 and did not go there as a “thrill” to fight.
He said: “He has a Ukrainian fiancé. They have or had a home outside of Mariupol and he was part of the 36th Marine Brigade.
“So, yes, he had a well-established life in Ukraine, Ukrainian citizenship.”
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