Two captured British fighters have been sentenced to death by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Another has been killed in fighting. What responsibilities, if any, does the British government have to them?
“Having committed actions against the constitutional order of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and attempting to overthrow the government, it is justified and objective to hand down the highest possible punishment: the death sentence. ”ITV News
Those were the words used by a judge to sentence British fighters Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, alongside Moroccan national Brahim Saadoun, at a Russian proxy court in the eastern Ukrainian city of Doñetsk – the capital of a breakaway region controlled by Russian separatists.
Their crime, as the Russian’s see it, is being ‘mercenaries’ for the Ukrainian army.
The punishment: death by firing squad.
“I was hoping the sentence would be a lot fairer judging the circumstances in which I helped the investigation and also because I surrendered to the Donetsk People’s Republic. I wish it could be different, but God will be the one that will judge me when the time comes.”Aiden Aslin
That’s 28 year old Aiden Aslin from Nottinghamshire speaking after he received that devastating sentence.
But what led him to join the Ukrainian army? And does the British government have any duty to help him and Shaun Pinner?
Aiden Aslin’s story begins well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
In 2014, with no prior military experience, he left his job as a care worker / to go to Syria and fight the Islamic State group alongside the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit, or YPG.
A decision he explained on his Youtube channel.
“Lack of support by the West… lack of initiative to do anything about it… so this is the reason why I went to Syria to fight with like the Kurdish YPG.”Aiden Aslin
After surviving that bloody conflict he moved to Ukraine in 2017 and by 2018 he was engaged to a Ukrainian woman.
As a dual Ukrainian-British citizen he was able to join Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade in the same year, so when war broke out in February he fought against the invaders until he was captured by Russian forces.
Like Shaun Pinner, that makes him a prisoner of war under international law, and not a mercenary.
Others have joined since war broke out. According to Ukrainian officials, over 20,000 volunteers from all over the world have joined President Volodymyr Zelensky’s newly created ‘International Legion’. 50 Britons are estimated to be among them.
“I’m fighting for democracy because democracy is precious and one man shouldn’t decide that another country shouldn’t have it.”
“People need me here…”
“Obviously the president asked if we can help…and I started to read about the war crimes…”Volunteer fighters, South China Morning Post
One of those who answered his call was British soldier Jordan Gately. He died on the frontlines of Severodonetsk, after spending months helping to train local forces.
Ben Grant, son of Conservative MP Helen Grant, is also among a group of seasoned UK fighters currently under heavy Russian gunfire in Kharkiv.
So what responsibility does the UK government have to the British citizens fighting in Ukraine?
The British government has given mixed messages about whether people should go and fight for Ukraine.
When war broke out, in an interview with BBC One’s Sunday Morning programme, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss appeared to encourage it.
Liz Truss: “Absolutely. If people want to support that struggle, I would support them in doing that.”
Interviewer: “So you support people from Britain going over to Ukraine to help in the fight?”
Liz Truss: “Absolutely.”Liz Truss, BBC News
She later withdrew those comments after being contradicted by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
“I have been very clear that travel advice from the UK is not to go to Ukraine. There are better ways of helping the efforts in Ukraine… what I said the other week was expressing support for the Ukrainian cause.”Liz Truss, ITV News
It’s important to say at this point that Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner travelled to Ukraine long before the current conflict and long before Liz Truss said what she said.
But Jordan Gatley went after being discharged from the British army in March this year.
His family said he did so “after careful consideration”.
After he was killed, the Foreign Office said it was supporting them.
“In Kyiv today to show support for Ukraine, but not a word on the fate of the two Britons sentenced to death. Defence secretary Ben Wallace sticking to the British policy that these men were serving in Ukraine’s armed forces and that to intervene too directly may help Russia to justify its claim that they were in fact just mercenaries.”ITV News
Under the rules of armed conflict Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner should be treated as prisoners of war and not as mercenaries, because they were both fully-sworn members of the Ukrainian army. An important distinction that should protect them.
Liz Truss has called their trial a “sham” that holds “no legitimacy”.
But that truth doesn’t seem to be helping them much.
Here’s Aiden Aslin speaking from prison.
“Trying to speak to the British government to try and help my case. They’ve done nothing in the past two months.”Aiden Aslin
The UK government will be worried about playing into the Kremlin’s hands.
So it’s likely the fate of Aiden Aslin and his comrades will be decided by politics, rather than the law.
But is it enough for Britain to just condemn the legal injustices that took place in Donetsk? Or must they actively seek negotiations that will bring the soldiers home?
It’s a difficult balance when lives are at stake.
Today’s episode was written by Eleanor Barzun and mixed by Imy Harper.