By BERNAT ARMANGUÉ and YURAS KARMANAU
BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Two British citizens and a Moroccan were sentenced to death Thursday for fighting on Ukraine’s side, in a punishment handed down by the country’s pro-Moscow rebels.
The proceedings against the three captured fighters were denounced by Ukraine and the West as a sham and a violation of the rules of war.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to liken himself to conquering monarch Peter the Great and spoke of his country’s need to “take back” territory and reinforce itself as the Kremlin’s forces continued a grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine.
A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine found the three fighters guilty of seeking the violent overthrow of power, an offense punishable by death in the unrecognized eastern republic. The men were also convicted of mercenary activities and terrorism.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the men — identified as Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun — will face a firing squad. They have a month to appeal.
The separatist side argued that the three were “mercenaries” not entitled to the usual protections accorded prisoners of war. The men are the first foreign fighters sentenced by Ukraine’s Russian-backed separatists.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko condemned the proceedings as legally invalid, saying, “Such show trials put the interests of propaganda above the law and morality.” He said that all foreign citizens fighting as part of Ukraine’s armed forces should be considered Ukrainian military personnel and protected as such.
British Foreign Secretary Luz Truss pronounced the sentencing a “sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies said that under the Geneva Conventions, POWs are entitled to immunity as combatants.
Saadoun’s father, Taher Saadoun, told the Moroccan online Arab-language newspaper Madar 21 that his son is not a mercenary and that he holds Ukrainian citizenship.
Aslin’s and Pinner’s families have said that the two men were long-serving members of the Ukrainian military. Both are said to have lived in Ukraine since 2018.
The three men fought alongside Ukrainian troops before Pinner and Aslin surrendered to pro-Russian forces in the southern port of Mariupol in mid-April and Saadoun was captured in mid-March in the eastern city of Volnovakha.
Another British fighter taken prisoner by the pro-Russian forces, Andrew Hill, is awaiting trial.
The Russian military has argued that foreign mercenaries fighting on Ukraine’s side are not combatants and should expect long prison terms, at best, if captured.
As the war raged in a key city in Ukraine’s Donbas region and other parts of the country, Russia’s president drew parallels between Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg and modern-day Russia’s ambitions.
When Peter founded the new capital, “no European country recognized it as Russia. Everybody recognized it as Sweden,” Putin said. He added: “What was (Peter) doing? Taking back and reinforcing. That’s what he did. And it looks like it fell on us to take back and reinforce as well.”
Putin also appeared to leave the door open for further Russian territorial expansion.
“It’s impossible — Do you understand? — impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia. And we do not intend to build that fence,” the Russian leader said.
Russian forces continued to pound the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk in fierce, street-by-street combat that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said could determine the fate of the Donbas, the country’s industrial heartland of coal mines and factories.
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for years in the Donbas and held swaths of territory before the invasion.
“Fierce battles continue in the city itself. Street battles are taking place with varied success in city blocks,” Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk province. “The army of Ukraine is fighting for every street and house.”
Sievierodonetsk is part of the very last pocket of Luhansk that the Russians have yet to seize. The Donbas is made up of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a Facebook post that up to 100 Ukrainian troops are being killed every day. “We as a country can’t afford to bleed, losing our best sons and daughters,” he said.
In other developments:
— Haidai said Russian forces are also targeting Lysychansk, the city that neighbors Sievierodonetsk, with “day and night shelling,” and are trying to storm a key road leading from Lysychansk to the southwest.
— Russian troops are trying to resume their offensive to completely capture the Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine’s southeast, Ukrainian authorities said. Kyiv continues to hold the northern part of the region, including the city of Zaporizhzhia.
— Thirteen civilians were killed in Ukrainian shelling of the separatist-controlled city of Stakhanov in the Luhansk region, a pro-Russian separatist envoy said on social media. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.
— Russia claimed it used missiles to strike a base west of the capital in the Zhytomyr region, where, it said, mercenaries were being trained. There was no immediate response from Ukrainian authorities.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier stands in position during heavy fighting on the front line in Severodonetsk, the Luhansk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)