On Tuesday, June 7th, two British men captured by the Russian army in eastern Ukraine formally faced trial in the breakaway People’s Republic of Donetsk. They were accused of fighting as mercenaries. This charge can carry the death penalty, since by the definition of mercenary, the two men would not be entitled to the same protections guaranteed by the Geneva Convention. By contrast, the captured Brits argued that they were serving with regular units of the Ukrainian army and should therefore be able to claim certain human rights as prisoners of war.
Their legal defence, to the extent that it mattered to the Russian-controlled court, was unsuccessful. Both men were sentenced to execution—a legal outcome that will greatly increase their value in any prospective prisoner-swap or negotiations. Alternatively, they might simply be shot. The UK foreign secretary Liz Truss denounced the decision as “a sham judgement with absolutely no legitimacy.” She further pledged to do “everything” possible to support the condemned men and their families.
Aiden Aslin, aged 28, and Shaun Pinner, aged 48, were captured by Vladimir Putin’s forces after serving in the Ukrainian effort to defend Mariupol from Russian bombardment and seizure. In response to the mercenary allegation, Aslin and Pinner both point to the fact that they have lived in Ukraine and served in its official army prior to the Russian invasion on February 24th, 2021.
Last month, Aslin even filmed footage describing his 48-day long experience of defending Mariupol from Russian forces. In the video, Aslin explains the fact that he and his fellow soldiers had no choice but to surrender. Aslin has also denied that he ever engaged in any fighting. Soon after releasing footage of himself on the verge of surrender, Aslin was then broadcast in captivity on Russian state TV, with a swollen face and a visible gash on his forehead.
Meanwhile, Pinner claims Ukraine as his “adopted country.” In a statement, his family then clarified that Pinner joined the Ukrainian army in 2018, married his Ukrainian wife, and became a proud member of his unit within the Ukrainian Marines. “We would like to make it clear,” they said, “he is not a volunteer nor a mercenary, but officially serving with the Ukrainian army in accordance with Ukrainian legislation.” Aslin also enlisted in Ukraine’s army in 2018, has a Ukrainian fiancée, and even bought a house in the country with the intention of starting a family there.
According to Sky News, the president of the People’s Republic of Donetsk Denis Pushilin insisted in advance of the trial that Aslin and Pinner had been guilty of “monstrous” crimes. The very fact that the head of state weighed in on the outcome of the legal process throws considerable doubt on the fairness of the outcome.