Two Britons and a Moroccan who had fought for the Ukrainian armed forces were sentenced to death Thursday by a court in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine after being accused of being mercenaries, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
The death sentences were the latest ominous step in a trial that has alarmed human rights advocates and Western governments, raising questions about the protections afforded to thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom have been taken prisoner on the battlefield.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, wrote on Twitter that the court verdict was a “sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy.” One British member of Parliament called the proceedings a “Soviet-era-style show trial.”
Prosecutors had accused the three men — Aiden Aslin, 28, Shaun Pinner, 48, and Brahim Saadoun — of being mercenaries and terrorists who were seeking to violently overthrow the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia has recognized.
But defenders of the three men said all three had immigrated to Ukraine, had made homes there and were fighting for their adopted country’s army before they were ensnared in what appeared to be a trial in which the verdict was predetermined.
The harsh sentences received a swift and angry rebuke from the British government. A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said that “prisoners of war shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes,” according to the BBC.
Legal experts said the trial appeared calculated to discourage foreign volunteers, including Americans, from joining Ukraine’s military by warning them that they could be denied the protections granted 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 troops since 2014, doubled down on their contention that the men were violent mercenaries deserving of death.
Prosecutors claimed that the three men were guilty of “training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” and that they undertook their activities “for a fee.”
Alexander Nikulin, the chairman of the board of the Appellate Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the men had intended to overthrow the region’s de facto government, which is allied with Moscow and which Ukraine, along with much of the rest of the world, does not regard as legitimate.
Mr. Nikulin said that the court had convicted the men and sentenced them to death after they had pleaded guilty to the charges of being mercenaries.
“When handing down the sentence, the court used not only written regulations and rules, but also the main, unshakable principle of justice,” he told reporters, according to Interfax. The men have one month to appeal.
At a hearing on Wednesday, the three men stood in a glass cage in a courtroom in Donetsk, the capital of the region, according to video released by the Russian government. All three were asked if they would plead guilty to the charges, and each said yes.
Interfax said that Mr. Pinner and Mr. Aslin had surrendered in the southern port city of Mariupol in April, while Mr. Brahim had surrendered in the eastern town of Volnovakha in March.
The British prime minister’s office stressed that, under the Geneva Conventions, “prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity and they should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities.”
Robert Jenrick, a Conservative member of Parliament in Newark, Mr. Aslin’s hometown in central England, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Aslin was not a mercenary, but had been living in Ukraine and had served in its armed forces before Russia’s invasion. Mr. Aslin is entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions, Mr. Jenrick said.
“This disgusting Soviet-era-style show trial is the latest reminder of the depravity of Putin’s regime,” he wrote, adding: “They cannot treat British citizens like this and get away with it.”
Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be treated humanely and be protected from violence, intimidation, insults and public curiosity, as well as sheltered and provided with food, clothing and medical care.
Denis Krivosheev, an official with Amnesty International, said that the sentences were a “blatant violation of international humanitarian law.”
“The three were members of the Ukrainian regular forces,” he said, “and under the Geneva Conventions, as prisoners of war, they are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities.” The only exception, he said, is prosecutions on war crimes charges.
According to the BBC, Mr. Aslin moved to Ukraine in 2018 and joined its military. He is engaged to a Ukrainian woman, the broadcaster said. Mr. Pinner comes from Bedfordshire, had served in the British Army and married a Ukrainian, the BBC reported.
Mr. Saadoun arrived in Ukraine in 2019, learned Russian, and signed up for the Ukrainian army a year ago, a friend, Ilya Zub, said.
“Brahim is not a mercenary,” Mr. Zub said, adding that he had known Mr. Saadoun for more than a year. “He came to Ukraine in 2019 and decided he wanted to start a new life.”