Putin Commits New War Crimes With Mock POW Trials

On June 10, 2022, two British nationals were sentenced to death by firing squad by a court in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine. The death sentence comes after Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were found guilty of “terrorism”. Both have one month to appeal. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss describe the trial as a “fictitious judgment without any legitimacy”. As combatants and as prisoners of war (PoW), they should not be prosecuted for their participation in war, except for international crimes, such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide .

Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were taken prisoner in Mariupol in April 2022, handed over to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to face what critics say is a show trial. The DPR is the unrecognized republic held by Russian-backed rebels. Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were sentenced to death by the DPR Supreme Court, after finding them guilty of “mercenary activities and actions aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order of the DPR”. Concerns have been expressed regarding the handling of cases, both in relation to the rights guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions and the right to a fair trial.

In order to proceed with the trials, Russia made a distinction in recognizing status between them and Ukrainians captured by the Russians. Ukrainian soldiers, when captured, are considered prisoners of war. British nationals, as in the case of Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, are considered mercenaries. This distinction, based on their place of birth, is erroneous, as it does not follow the definition of a mercenary according to the Geneva Conventions. Members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict, even if they are not nationals of that party, must be considered combatants, as long as they do not meet the definition of mercenary set out in article 47 of the Protocol additional I.

According to his family, Shaun Pinner moved to Ukraine in 2018 and joined the military there, after serving in the British Army. He is married to a Ukrainian. Aiden Aslin joined the country’s marines in 2018. He was reportedly granted Ukrainian citizenship after three years of military service. He has a Ukrainian fiancée. Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner served as soldiers in the Ukrainian military forces. As Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were both “longtime” members of the Ukrainian military, they should be considered combatants and enjoy the rights that come with that status.

Among other things, under the Geneva Conventions, combatants enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct that is an intrinsic part of their participation in hostilities (the privilege of belligerency). The privilege does not apply to international crimes. As such, combatants can be prosecuted for acts committed as part of their participation in hostilities if these acts constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. However, the two Britons have not been prosecuted for such international crimes despite some Russian reports suggesting they were involved in such crimes. Furthermore, according to Article 47(1) of Additional Protocol I, mercenaries are not considered combatants and, as such, cannot benefit from the privilege of belligerency. This is the argument relied on in this case.

In any event, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner should enjoy the right to a fair trial, including to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal. There are concerns about whether international standards of the right to a fair trial have been respected in the handling of these cases. Over the years, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised several concerns about the functioning of the courts in the DPR. The situation is considered to have deteriorated only after February 2022. Moreover, the trials were not public and only a small part was made available via pro-Kremlin media. As such, it is highly unlikely that Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner received a fair trial. Moreover, by handing the two over to the DPR for prosecution, Russia may have committed a war crime.

The British government has condemned the treatment of British nationals serving in the Ukrainian army. Among others, Foreign Minister Liz Truss noted that both were prisoners of war and that she would continue to do whatever she could to support them.

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Post expires at 9:59pm on Thursday June 23rd, 2022