Russia wants to use three foreigners who were captured while fighting for Ukraine and sentenced to death as “hostages” to put pressure on the West over peace negotiations, a senior Ukrainian official said on Friday.
Two Britons and a Moroccan received the death sentence on Thursday from a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agencies reported.
They were brought to trial after a Ukrainian court sentenced a Russian soldier to life in prison last month for killing an unarmed civilian in Ukraine.
Kyiv said Thursday’s court ruling had no authority, that the fighters were members of the Ukrainian armed forces and that they were subject to Geneva Convention protections.
Vadym Denysenko, an Interior Ministry adviser, said on Friday Ukraine would coordinate its position on the sentences with Britain, the United States, and the European Union.
“The trial of the foreigners raises the stakes in the Russian Federation’s negotiation process. They are using them as hostages to put pressure on the world over the negotiation process,” he told national television.
Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are frozen. Russia has accused Ukraine of blocking talks, but Kyiv says Moscow is to blame.
In a separate negotiating process, Turkey is leading attempts to arrange safe passage for grain stuck in Ukrainian Black Sea ports blockaded by Russia.
Russia did not immediately comment on Denysenko’s remarks.
The three men—Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun—were found guilty of “mercenary activities and committing actions aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order” of the self-proclaimed DPR.
They were captured while fighting for Ukraine against Russia and Russian-backed forces after Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Their lawyer said they would appeal against the decision.
Britain slammed the court’s decision as a “sham judgment.”
“I utterly condemn the sentencing of Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner held by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Twitter. “They are prisoners of war. This is a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said that, under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war were entitled to combatant immunity and they should not be prosecuted for participation in hostilities.
Robert Jenrick, the member of parliament for the district where Aslin’s family live, said the proceedings were akin to a “Soviet-era show trial.”
The hasty trial was held largely behind closed doors.
Less than 24 hours before the verdict was handed down, Pinner and Saadoun had pleaded guilty to actions aimed at the violent seizure of power, a video shared from the court by the RIA Novosti news agency showed. Aslin appeared to have pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving weapons and explosives.
“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 after handing down the verdict.
“When passing the verdict, the court was guided not only by the prescribed norms and rules, but also by the most important, unshakable 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.
The DPR is one of two breakaway Russian-backed entities in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine that Russia says it is fighting to liberate from Ukrainian forces.
Three days before launching its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russia recognized them as independent states in a move condemned by Ukraine and the West as illegal.
Britain does not recognize the DPR and Britain has not publicly engaged with local officials over the case.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said earlier this week that should London raise the case directly with the DPR, this might amount to de facto recognition of the region’s independence.
British citizens Aslin, 28, and Pinner, 48, were captured by the Russian-backed forces in Mariupol in April, during a bitter fight for control of the city. Their families say they have both lived in Ukraine since 2018.
Moroccan Saadoun surrendered in March while fighting in a small town between Mariupol and the regional capital of Donetsk.
Morocco’s authorities have not commented on the case since his capture.
Kyiv also condemned the court ruling as having no authority and said the fighters were members of the Ukrainian armed forces, and thus subject to Geneva Convention protections.
“This so-called ‘trial’ of members of Ukraine’s armed forces in occupied Ukrainian territory is null and void,” said foreign office spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko.
“Such public trials put the interests of propaganda above law and morality, and undermine the mechanisms for returning prisoners of war.”
Both Ukrainian and Russian forces have captured hundreds of enemy fighters since the start of the conflict, with a handful of prisoner exchanges having taken place.