The occupiers sentenced three foreigners who fought in the UAF to death. Human rights activists are convinced that this “court” violates international law, and volunteers — that the desire to fight for Ukraine wonʼt decrease

Dmytro Rayevskyi, Oksana Rasulova
Tetyana Lohvynenko
The occupiers sentenced three foreigners who fought in the UAF to death. Human rights activists are convinced that this “court” violates international law, and volunteers — that the desire to fight for Ukraine wonʼt decrease

Thousands of foreign volunteers have arrived in Ukraine since the beginning of Russiaʼs full-scale invasion. On February 27, 2022, the International Legion of Territorial Defense officially appeared, which foreigners could join. As early as March 5, the Fight for Ukraine website was launched with information for citizens of other countries who want to join the fight against the Russian invasion. In mid-March, volunteers from 52 countries arrived in Ukraine, most of them from the United States and Great Britain. In total, more than 20 thousand foreigners expressed a desire to fight. In addition to the legion, they formed several other units, including the Kastus Kalinouski Belarusian Regiment, the Georgian Legion, and the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. Russia is trying to counter the flow of volunteers: propagandists are constantly covering the loss of the legion and producing mostly fake stories about foreigners who allegedly left the unit and went home. In an attempt to intimidate volunteers from the International Legion and other units, the “DPR Supreme Court” sentenced three foreigners who had fought in the 36th Marine Brigade of the UAF on June 9. Moroccan citizen Brahim Saadun and Britons Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin were sentenced to death for alleged terrorism and an attempt to overthrow the “DPR government”. During the "trial" they were called "mercenaries", although all three are servicemen of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and fall under the rules of treatment of prisoners of war of the Geneva Convention. But now only International Legion fighters are sometimes added to the prisoner exchange lists, and Saadun, Pinner, and Aslin had nothing to do with it. Babel spoke with a former International Legion member from Israel who described how the unit was formed and why the Russians would not be able to intimidate foreign volunteers; talked to friends of the captured Moroccan Brahim Saadun and human rights activists and told everything known about the capture of foreigners and the illegality of the sentence.

The soldiers leave the International Legion and then return there

Mykhailo was born in Ukraine and is now an Israeli citizen. He served three years in the Israeli army. And when the war broke out in Ukraine, he decided to come back and fight.

"I flew to Ukraine without any plan and on the way learned about the option with the International legion. I learned it by accident. This is generally the most common story in the legion. I have heard that the military attache of Ukraine in Israel can help with registration [for the legion], but in reality I donʼt know the Israelis who would be helped in this way. Everyone learned about the legion from other sources, most often in Ukraine," he said.

In early March, Mykhailo joined the legion. He says that at first the command did not know what to do with the volunteers, because not everyone had combat experience, and there was no time for training. Therefore, foreigners with military experience went in groups to Kyiv, and later — to the frontline.

"Someone wanted to fight and could spend literally one day at the base. It was enough to tell the officers that you wanted to go to the front, and you were sent to Kyiv. The rest were trained. And at first newcomers were trained by other foreigners. Later, Ukrainian officers arrived. I stayed at the base for only four days, then went closer to the hot spots," he says.

The main language of communication among the legionnaires was English. Mykhailo says that the leaders emerged among the volunteers — the officers communicated with them. And people tried to unite on the basis of language. For example, someone knew only Spanish, so there had to be someone in his unit who knew both English and Spanish.

Motivation among foreigners was different. There were people who went to war because Russian aggression is wrong and must be stopped. Someone has such a lifestyle — being at war. Some fighters came to learn something new, because fighting is their profession.

Mykhailo served in the legion for about a month, and then decided to leave.

"It didnʼt look so serious back then. There were no basic things, even communication with other units of the Armed Forces. Our plan could change three times in half an hour. Itʼs just that no one reported it to the staff. We went on a mission with a plan that we had in mind, and did not do what was needed. We could by chance encounter other units of the Armed Forces, the Territorial Defense, or even civilian units with weapons. And all this without communication. Although we did not have a shootout between our own people. Sometimes, three days later, we learned about a task that we had, but we didnʼt do it because no one told us. It was a mess,” he admits.

According to Mykhailo, many foreigners left the legion in March. After the first fire contact with the enemy, several Americans who had previously been in Afghanistan and Iraq admitted that there was another war — an absolute advantage [of their side] and the lack of heavy equipment of the enemy.

"Here, on the contrary, we are light infantry, and tanks are attacking us. But not all Americans, of course, left because of this, many stayed, got used to the new conditions. Someone went because of purely human factors: something happened at home or because of fear and injury. Everyone has their own story. Someone left, but later returned. If the legion was still a bad place, people would not return there," said the volunteer.

Mykhailo adds that everything is much better in the legion now. He keeps in touch with some legionnaires and monitors the situation. Today, there are many officers and those who want to serve. Ukrainian officers from other units of the Armed Forces are sometimes transferred to the legion to work with foreigners.

"Now I hear from the people who remained in the legion that this is a full-fledged combat unit with equipment, communication channels and everything that needs to be. If the organization was at the same level as it is now, I would probably stay there,” he says.

According to Mykhailo, if a foreigner wants to help Ukraine and is ready to fight, it is better for him to go to the International Legion. At least people there already know what to do with foreigners, how to work with them, what tasks they can be given. In addition, he is confident that Russia will not be able to intimidate potential volunteers.

"The Russian narrative that the legion is a purely media thing or a propaganda one is not true. People serve there, they fight, perform combat missions, in particular on the hot spots. In Sievierodonetsk, for example, — says Mykhailo. — Russia intimidates foreigners, threatens them with execution, and so on. But I donʼt think itʼs effective. The desire to go and help will not decrease. People often go to the legion by the word of mouth, via acquaintances. Soldiers who have served and fought together in other hotspots pass information to each other and fight together here again. People go to their friends, they wonʼt be scared so easily."

Brahim Saadun studied at the KPI and joined the Armed Forces before the war

Brahim Saadun is 21 years old, he came to Ukraine from Morocco in 2019. He studied at KPI — at the Institute of Aerospace Technology.

Muiz, a friend of Brahim, says of him as follows: “I would call him an icon of the techno scene of Kyiv. He was at all the parties, he had incredible energy, his loud voice could be heard everywhere. He is very smart — he knows several languages, is fond of philosophy, approaches problems with humor. I would say heʼs a little crazy."

In August 2021, Brahim decided to sign a contract with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In September of the same year he submitted the necessary documents to the 36th Marine Brigade.

"The Russian-Ukrainian war affected him,” Muiz said. “He wanted to join the Armed Forces to find himself and give something to Ukrainian society which accepted him. And it was important for him to gain experience in the army. But he did not know that in a few months he would have to fight like that."

The captivity of the Moroccan citizen became known on April 17, 2022. Alexander Sladkov, a Russian propagandist from Russia 24 state TV, published an "interview" with Brahim on his channel. Although in fact it was an interrogation — earlier Sladkov also interrogated Stanislav Aseyev. It is unknown when Brahim was captured — the Russians claim that it happened on March 12 near Volnovakha. But Muiz spoke with Brahim on March 27, and he said nothing about the captivity. And only then did he stop communicating. It is possible that the Moroccan was captured on April 11 or 12, when part of the 36th brigade surrendered in Mariupol.

On April 30, “Donetsk Peopleʼs Republic” opened a criminal case against Brahim and two British nationals, Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin, for "forcible seizure of power by a group of individuals" and "mercenarism". Despite the fact that they lived in Ukraine and joined the Armed Forces before February 24, the "prosecution" calls the military "mercenaries". For the first time, information about the threat of execution for foreigners fighting on the side of Ukraine against Russia appeared in early May — this was stated by the so-called “Prosecutor General of the DPR”.

As early as June 1, the “DPR” stated that foreigners would not be exchanged, saying that they "acted like terrorists and Nazis". "The laws of the DPR wartime provide for the death penalty as the highest punishment", — such a sentence was issued by the local “court” on June 9 "for a set of crimes".

"At first [after the ʼsentenceʼ] I felt helpless, I couldnʼt sleep for two days," says Muiz. “And then it occurred to me that it is necessary to give publicity to the story. I wrote on Instagram that Brahim is still alive and there is a chance to save him." Muiz launched the #SaveBrahim campaign and created a separate page. Within hours, the news of the death penalty for his friend got thousands of shares.

To help Brahim, Muiz decided to encourage public figures to talk about him. They turned to Serhiy Leshchenko — Muiz saw how he and Brahim greeted each other on the dance floor and were at the same parties. In the end, Leshchenko recorded a video advising him to turn to international organizations.

Muiz and his friends are currently working in this direction, but human rights activists have advised not to disclose any details. Muiz says he has not yet approached the military leadership. Brahimʼs friends contacted relatives of Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin to work together to secure the release of the prisoners.

Russia has decided to hold a demonstrative process to intimidate foreigners and legitimize the “D/LPR”

The "lawyers" of the prisoners were Russians Dmitriy Yershov and Igor Vagin, who also called their clients "mercenaries". Both came to “DPR” as "the first and only Russian lawyers". In an interview, they said that Russian military investigators and representatives of the investigative committee had arrived at the “D/LPR”. They work with cases that are conducted under Russian law, so local "lawyers" cannot deal with them.

Ukrainian human rights activist and lawyer Vira Yastrubova has another explanation: “I am a former employee of the court staff in Donetsk Oblast. And I know that there are catastrophically few lawyers in the occupied territories. Personally, I do not know any collaborating lawyer, they did not stay "to work" there. And this process is demonstrative for Russia. They do not want to spend time checking local "lawyers". So those who already work for the FSB came to Donetsk."

The "lawyers" announced that their colleagues from the occupied Crimea would come to Donetsk. Vagin also says that he expects an explanation from the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation on the jurisdiction of military cases so that they are "legitimate", because "an analogue of the Nuremberg Trials is being prepared".

In court, Brahim Saadoun, Sean Pinner and Aidan Aslin pleaded guilty to "training for terrorist activities and seizing power", but denied being mercenaries. They are not included in the exchange list — only foreigners from the International Legion are entered in this register.

Aiden Aslin, Sean Pinner and Brahim Saaddun during a "trial" in the “DPR”.

If the native countries of the captives start to appeal the decision, it could help legitimize "trials in the DPR" in the international arena. For example, Russian propagandists are already claiming that the United Kingdom will appeal the "sentence". However, in reality, British officials have only stated that they are shocked by the "sentence" and will work more closely with Ukraine to free their citizens as soon as possible. They are currently under the protection of the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war, but havenʼt received this protection in the “DPR”. Ukraine has already launched a pre-trial investigation into violations of international law.

The Geneva Convention states that a country is prohibited from prosecuting prisoners of war unless it is fair, transparent and established in accordance with international requirements. The so-called court in the "DЗR" is not exactly like that — neither the world community nor the UN knows such a country.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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