Two Britons are among five foreigners charged with being mercenaries fighting for Ukraine by Russian-backed separatist court – and one of them ‘faces the death penalty’

  • Briton John Harding, Croatian Vjekoslav Prebeg and Swedish citizen Mathias Gustafsson, who were captured in Mariupol, face a possible death sentence
  • Two other Britons were charged by Donetsk court but will not face execution
  • All five of the accused pleaded not guilty to the charge of being mercenaries
  • Comes after Russian-backed court in June sentenced two other Britons to death

A Russian-backed separatist court in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine has charged five foreign nationals captured fighting with Ukrainian forces with being mercenaries on Monday, saying three could face the death penalty. 

Briton John Harding, Croatian Vjekoslav Prebeg and Swedish citizen Mathias Gustafsson, who were captured in and around the port city of Mariupol, face a possible death sentence under the laws of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported. 

Two more Britons, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill, were also charged but do not face execution. 

All five of the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges, TASS reported. 

It cited the judge as saying that the trial would resume in early October. 

In response to the charges against Prebeg, the Croatian Foreign Ministry said: ‘Croatia dismisses the indictment and does not consider it to be founded and legal because it is opposed to international law and international conventions on the treatment of detained civilians and prisoners of war.’ 

The British Foreign Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Images which emerged from the trial today showed the five European defendants and alleged ‘mercenaries’ forced to sit in a metal cage as their charges were read out before the court.

They were then forced to wear a bag over their head and were firmly escorted from the courtroom by hulking security guards clad in caps bearing the Russian flag and the infamous Z symbol synonymous with Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. 

Foreign nationals Andrew Hill from Britain, Dylan Healy from Britain, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, John Harding from Britain and Mathias Gustafsson from Sweden, who were captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukrainian troops during Ukraine-Russia conflict, sit inside a defendants’ cage as they attend a court hearing in Donetsk, Ukraine August 15, 2022

British national John Harding, who was captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukrainian troops during Ukraine-Russia conflict, could face a death sentence from a Donetsk court

The latest round of trials comes after Donetsk authorities in June sentenced to death two Britons – Shaun Pinner, 48, and Aiden Aslin, 28, and one Moroccan citizen captured fighting with Ukrainian forces against Russia on charges of attempting to forcibly seize power, and of being mercenaries.

Foreign governments have declined to negotiate with the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two Russian-backed entities that have controlled parts of east Ukraine’s Donbas region since 2014, citing its internationally recognised status as part of Ukraine.  

The UK Government insisted the judgment passed upon Pinner and Aslin had no legitimacy and the pair should be treated as prisoners of war. 

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss condemned the death sentences as a ‘sham judgment’ while Downing Street said it was ‘deeply concerned’ by the development. 

‘Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to combatant immunity,’ said a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Shaun Pinner (pictured with his wife Larysa) had moved to Ukraine four years before joining Ukrainian marines

A former care worker, Mr Aslin (pictured left) moved to Ukraine after falling for his now-wife Diane (pictured right), who is originally from the city of Mykolaiv – found about 260 miles west of Mariupol, along the coast. She is reported to have moved to the UK to be with his family

The two Britons surrendered in April in Mariupol, the southern port city that was captured by Russian troops after a brutal weeks-long siege that all but levelled the city. 

They later appeared on Russian TV calling on Johnson to negotiate their release. 

‘The Supreme Court of the DPR passed the first sentence on mercenaries – the British Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and the Moroccan Saadun Brahim were sentenced to death, RIA Novosti correspondent reports from the courtroom,’ RIA said on the Telegram messaging app.

Judge Alexander Nikulin said: ‘The aggregated penalty for the crimes [means] the sentence Aiden Aslin to an exceptional measure of punishment, the death penalty.

‘The aggregated penalty for the crimes [means] the sentence [of] Shaun Pinner to an exceptional measure of punishment, the death penalty.’ 

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